Does Female Ambition Require Sacrifice?

This post was co-authored with Melinda Marshall.

In real life, as in the film Black Swan, Natalie Portman wants to win not only the leading role, but also its attendant accolades. And on February 27, she may well fulfill her ambition: the 29-year-old Harvard grad is within a jeté of the Oscar for Best Actress. More remarkable, Portman is pregnant with her first child and set to wed her co-star and choreographer. Here is a talented, driven young woman who dares to want it all, dares to be it all, and will likely succeed at both.

However, Portman's real-life success is anything but the typical portrait of female ambition. It is Portman's Black Swan character Nina who embodies what passes for ambition in women: Nina is a self-absorbed, frigid hysteric whose desire for recognition is so all-consuming that she will kill to succeed — or destroy herself trying. But while such a character makes for riveting drama, it only serves to entrench a stereotype that women in the workforce battle mightily to overturn.

This stereotype — one that shows ambition as a power-hungry need — implies that the pursuit of mastery and recognition is likely to cost more than it can possibly deliver. Characters like Nina imply that ambition will cost a woman all her meaningful relationships; it will push her to the breaking point; it will twist her priorities, pervert her desires, and betray her dreams.

Sadly, too many women still subscribe to this stereotype — hence their ambivalence about aiming for the top of their profession. Research conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy in 2010 confirms that women start out wanting the brass ring almost as badly as men do: 47% of women 30 and younger describe themselves as "very ambitious," as compared to 62% of men. But this fire burns out, typically during the child-bearing years when pursuing promotions at work clashes headlong with fulfilling dreams on the home front. Only 32% of highly qualified women over 40 describe themselves as very ambitious (compared to 46% of men).

Indeed, senior managers in CWLP focus groups admit that, after years spent clawing their way up the ladder, they didn't want the top job after all. "I could be CFO," confessed one female executive with particularly strong credentials, "but I'm happy right where I am."

What's causing women to ease off the accelerator while their male peers speed ahead? Women are confronted with a choice that men simply don't have to make: to reach for the brass ring at great personal sacrifice, or to embrace marriage and parenthood at the expense of their dreams. CWLP research shows that fully 41% of women who actually make it to the executive suite arrive without an intimate partner, and 40% arrive without children.

Yet ambitious women need not be trapped into Nina-like scenarios. With companies increasingly recognizing that they need the best talent — all of it — to succeed in today's cut-throat marketplace, more and more companies are implementing programs enabling women to claim and sustain their professional ambitions without sacrificing their personal ones.

Programs that create pathways to power provide both signposts to the top and support along the way. Time Warner's Breakthrough Leadership, Deutsche Bank's Accomplished Top Leaders Advancement Strategies (ATLAS), and Novartis' Executive Female Leadership programs teach high-potential women skills for proactive career management, introduce networking opportunities with senior-level leaders who can shepherd and sponsor their protégées, and forge a strong community of colleagues so they don't feel they're alone in the spotlight.

Other companies expand their pipeline of talented women by promoting a safe environment for female ambition to flourish. Intel's Extending Our Reach program takes a novel approach by developing female vice presidents into a strong cohort of sponsors. "We want to have executive women teach other senior-level women," explains chief diversity officer Rosalind Hudnell. "We're looking to increase their visibility, encourage them to step into leadership roles, act as role models and not only increase but accelerate opportunities and advancement."

As Natalie Portman demonstrates off-screen, owning up to one's desires, and realizing one's dreams, need not require suppressing or sacrificing one's essential self. Portman proves there's no penalty for those who aim for the lead, seize the stage, and strut their stuff — their femininity as well as their professional fervor. With leading companies playing a strong supporting role, more women can become stars.

Melinda Marshall is a journalist, editor, and ghostwriter. She is the author of Good Enough Mothers: Changing Expectations for Ourselves.

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