New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a real credit to his gender, has come through for the ladies again, writing this past Sunday on why she's (rarely) the boss. And his answer? Why, sadly, it's that we lack ambition. This conclusion
January 30, 2013


New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a real credit to his gender, has come through for the ladies again, writing this past Sunday on why she's (rarely) the boss.

And his answer? Why, sadly, it's that we lack ambition. This conclusion is totally validated by the fact that one woman, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is supposed to have come to it.

Wow. I never realized we've been so screwed over all these years because we just didn't want any better for ourselves. Oh, wait ... no, that's just bull. There is no gender ambition gap. And on that note, let me tell you about a friend of mine who went to work for a tech startup not too long ago and didn't last very long, story illustration courtesy of Star Wars.

It looked like a mismatch from early on, as it was all single guys in their 20s and early 30s, who'd set up a deliberately hostile office culture that seemed to keep a lot of people (even in a mostly male crowd) from coming forward with useful suggestions.

But the worst thing, the thing that really tore it for my friend, was the founder's assessment that she "didn't have a fire in [her] belly." Why? There was a video game, StarCraft, that everyone usually stayed late and played at night, several nights a week and he said that she wasn't taking the time to be part of the culture. She wasn't committed. Mind, she is a longtime video gamer. But as she explained, she had a toddler at home and she really couldn't stay at the office all night. She had to go home and be there for dinner and bedtime.

This argument carried no weight. The impression was fixed, immutable. (Did we really think Mitt Romney was the bottom of the male boss enlightenment barrel? If only!)

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My friend has over 15 years' experience as a manager and developer in the software industry. She's a published author. She's been integral to the development of a web protocol and was selected by her peers to chair one of the international working groups on web standards development. She does not place a low value on her contributions and has male mentors who are highly invested in her career. She's also not shy, is very collected, usually cheerful, polite even under great duress, didn't take a long maternity leave, and she is not afraid of you.

But she walked into that company and it might as well have been that cantina in Mos Eisley: "I don't like you. My friend doesn't like you, either."

I obviously have a high opinion of my friend, and look what she faced, but I don't think that she's alone in ambition and accomplishments. I don't think Sandberg, Whitman or Fiorina are likely to be especially rare representatives of the gender, either. How likely is that, anyhow, that there's only a scant handful of ambitious women in tech and I just happen to know one of them? Hell, Carly Fiorina succeeded in spite of what turned out to be gross managerial incompetence, not a paragon, but she made it through the gauntlet. Which is hopeful, right? Because your demographic has really arrived when even a schlub can win occasionally!

The idea that there's some few exceptional women who've figured out a mysterious secret wantonly obscures the reality that women are too often walking into the Mos Eisley cantina and the guys who are already there don't like us. Sometimes you survive that, sometimes you will thrive in it, but it's not the same place that a typical guy walks into.

Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing something along these lines about the roots of racial discrimination on Twitter a bit ago, which certainly inspired my framing of this, saying, "You think about segregation and the signs, but the larger thing is a society organized, in every facet, to say "We don't want you." ... There's nothing else--just nearly half a millenia of "We don't like black people." C'est tout. We wish it was complicated. It isn't."

He went on to discuss how that manifested in a lot of ways, but at base, when the people already in power keep rejecting you, education and hard work doesn't have the payoff it has for the people who aren't instantly disliked.

And sure, you look in the ranks of female firsts in the US for women of color, who have two potential counts of being instantly disliked by the dominant hierarchical population, and they aren't usually there in that first wave. Should we assume from this that women of color have less ambition than white women? To state the question is to render it ridiculous. It looks more like a diffusion gradient based on degrees of difference from what's held to be the ideal mean, and it follows the pattern of gradual success in the struggle for access to other levers of power like voting and college admissions, where usually at first more men are allowed in, then middle and upper class white women, then women of color and the poor, and eventually, identifiably LGBT people.

The more steps you are away from being a prosperous, straight, white guy in this country, the longer it takes to get that first foot in the door, the longer it takes to start paying your dues, then to build up a population of likely candidates from which someone (even the occasional schlub) can start climbing the ladder.

We want to 'do something' and work on our professional skills, learn more and improve ourselves, and we should do that. It's healthy and productive. But it has to be recognized as one necessary, yet not sufficient component of success.

The other component is to just keep showing up. You show up. Your sisters show up. Your girlfriends show up. Their sisters show up. Their girlfriends. And you don't stop coming until it just isn't weird to see you there anymore. It's not defeatist, but I think rather a necessary realization so we don't solely tie ourselves up in knots wondering what we did wrong in some mostly male environment, because a lot of times the real answer is nothing, and the thing to do is to show up someplace else and hope that our timing is a little better.

Men don't succeed because the gender as a whole has hit some perfect balance of ambition and perma-cheer, but because they don't face the same disapproval for expressing heightened emotion or get penalized for trying to negotiate a better salary. Men succeed because their dads and granddads succeeded in a world where our moms and grandmothers weren't really allowed to directly compete with them, and they brought in people like their sons to take over, and they mostly brought in other people like themselves and their sons to take over after, ad infinitum.

They start off more liked, trusted and expected in business and political settings, from which jumping-off status they can rise to the breaking point of their level of incompetence (or sadly, sometimes beyond).

bag of hammers.jpg

Hasn't every woman reading this worked at least once for a guy who was dumb as a bag of hammers relative to the job requirements and still taking home a lot more cash than we were? Remember the dumbest thing that guy said or did in your presence, picture the infuriatingly smug expression, and ask yourself, "Did this moron really get that job because he wanted it more?"

Worse, didn't a bunch of *sshole white guys with more power than they ever should have been trusted with just nearly break the whole damn world economy? Have you ever broken a whole world economy? (I'm pretty sure you haven't, because I would have seen it on the Twitter.)

I mention this because the guys who did do it don't really seem to spend a lot of time worrying if they're good enough, if they have the right qualities, if they're worth it, if they're perfect enough to be granted that next level of access. And I can't help but think that maybe people who haven't screwed up on so epic a scale would be better off worrying a little less about our worthiness. In fact, the world might be better off if we wasted less of our time worrying about stuff like that, because the guys running it clearly need supervision.

So, with feeling, dear ladies, let's take this opportunity to resolve to stop looking so hard for stuff that's wrong with us. We've each already made that list, and it's long, and where does it get us to dwell on it but nervous? Just keep showing up.

The truth is, once they let us stay around a while, they may realize that we're good for business (even if we have kids) and what they should be doing is seeking us out to invite us to the club.

Can you help us out?

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