This is a guest post by Nisha Chittal. Nisha Chittal is a social media strategist and writer in Washington, DC. She writes about politics, media, and technology, and her work has been featured in The American Prospect, Ms. Magazine, NPR.org, Jezebel, Mediaite, and more. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NishaChittal.
It needs no re-telling here, but there’s a big gender gap in leadership roles: there are 20 women in the Senate, and that’s a record high. As of November 2012, there are 21 women who are Fortune 500 CEOs – about 4% – and that is also a record high. Yet, women are getting college degrees and entering the workforce at higher rates than men. Between graduating college and reaching senior management, something is stopping women from making it to the top echelons of the workforce
Some have lamented that women aren’t in more leadership positions because they hold themselves back, because they prioritize family over getting ahead, because they don’t ask for the raise or the promotion. In The Atlantic today, Bryce Covert disagrees with this argument, using various data to show that in many cases women are just as ambitious, but encounter gender bias in the workplace.
Covert is right in that women are just as ambitious as men, but bias in the workplace often becomes a barrier to women in trying to get ahead. But I don’t think we should dismiss the “ambition gap” notion entirely just yet. I wouldn’t use the term ambition gap, perhaps, because I have no doubt that women are as ambitious as men and we have just as big dreams.
What I do notice every day is that most women have been taught from an early age to be nice, above all else. To watch your tone. To not be too aggressive. To not be too greedy. To share the credit for their achievements. To be modest. And as girls grow into women, they internalize those messages and carry the “nice girl” message into their careers. Most women I know constantly wrestle with how to reconcile their high ambitions with the conflicting messages they’ve received to be likeable, and not too aggressive.
Jessica Valenti captured this issue well in her recent op-ed in The Nation: “Women adjust their behavior to be likable and as a result have less power in the world,” she wrote. The pressure women receive from all sides to be more “likeable” is often what causes many women to shrink from pursuing a more aggressive career strategy – it’s not lack of ambition, it’s fear of being called the office bitch. It causes us to second guess ourselves when we’re up for an award, a promotion, or a raise. It’s exactly why books like “Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office” have become national bestsellers – because it touches on a fear many women have: I want to get ahead in my career, but can I do so and still be the nice girl that everyone likes?
Ultimately, the gender gap in the workforce is caused by many factors, and sexism certainly is one of them — but it isn’t the only one. To blame the gender gap entirely on sexism means that there is absolutely nothing we as women can do to change that gap, but that’s not entirely true. Letting go of the need to be likeable and embracing a more aggressive, outspoken career strategy is key to increasing women’s success in the workforce and helping women to advance to higher levels of leadership. As Valenti says, this is no small thing, as women are taught their entire lives to believe that our worth is tied to what others think of us. The women I know want just as much to succeed, to make a great salary, to have a great career, as much as the men I know. The problem isn’t that women aren’t ambitious enough – it’s that we’re taught that being ambitious and being likeable are mutually exclusive, and we worry we have to hide our ambition. And once we realize that, it’s something that we do all have the power to change ourselves.
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