Not long ago one of my colleagues attended my weekend retreat. At it’s conclusion she told me that while the information was life-altering for her, what really blew her away was her experience of my huge heart and my capacity to empathize, especially given my reputation as being extremely ambitious, a real go-getter.
I was stunned by both her candor and its content. I cringe to think that this fellow professional couldn’t (wouldn’t?) place my capacity to feel in the same equation as my ambition—she, like most of our culture, is of the opinion that to have ambition in the form of fame, fortune or position is absolutely in-congruent with what it means to be feminine, what it means to be relationally oriented.
Did she mean I had to choose? I could either be feminine or ambitious? That I couldn’t be both? Or, at least, not at the same time? And as for my so-called reputation— I truly believe we earn those and that we’re in charge of them so if I seem very ambitious it’s because I’m, well, very ambitious. I set the bar very high because I, for one, refuse to die with my song still inside me. I’ve never, even for a moment, suspended my femininity in my quest for success. As a matter of fact, I’d attribute my success largely to my femininity.
Coincidentally, soon after this incident an equally ‘high performance’ colleague suggested I read Anna Fels’ article, Do Women Lack Ambition? in the Harvard Business Review www.hbr.org. Fels, a psychiatrist, cites overwhelmingly conclusive evidence substantiating that this assumption is the cultural norm. Reading the research left me both appalled and relieved; the latter because it is still holds true in 2009 and the former because it validates my own observations.
It’s most likely that this colleague of mine wasn’t even conscious of what she said—that’s how it is with cultural tendencies—they’re so much a part of who we are that we don’t even notice them. Which is what makes them so dangerous, to begin with.