Shannon Kelley

Shannon Kelley
Santa Barbara, California, USA
June 11
Shannon Kelley and her mother Barbara Kelley are both journalists, and have just written a book called "Undecided". Together. (...Right??) This blog is a taste of what you'll find in "Undecided", a book about choice overload, analysis paralysis, grass is greener syndrome, longing for the road not traveled, and how the success of the women’s movement has left women stumped in the face of limitless options — and how to get over it. The book comes out on May 3: if you like what you're reading here, get the book here: And subscribe to our blog here:


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MARCH 15, 2012 11:38PM

Either/or: Two Words That Underlie the Ambition Gap

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We’ve been hearing a lot about the ambition gap lately: the fact that, as Sheryl Sandberg notes, only a paltry 15 to 18 percent of women occupy the top spots.  But there’s a dirty little secret that impacts the number of women who ultimately become leaders, or who hope to ascend to leadership positions, and it’s this:  many women believe — or, sadly, find out the hard way — that ultimately, they will have to choose between family and career.

I see this all the time in my current and former students.  I have been told, a number of times, by talented young women, that they see me as something as a role model:  I stayed home with my kids when they were young while I pursued a career as a freelance journalist and, when said kids fled the nest, began teaching at a university.  What I want to tell them is that they’re nuts.  It wasn’t easy and it didn’t work nearly as well as it looks.  And in fact, full disclosure here, I am one of those ambition gap stats.

The sad truth is that whether your dreams are to be a swashbuckling journalist or a high-rent CEO, your dreams — at least in the way the workplace is currently structured — are flat out incompatible with parenthood.  And when that sharp reality slaps these talented women in the face, a lot of this incredible Double-X talent backs off.  Sometimes before they even have kids.  Or even a marriage.  They think that ultimately, they will have to choose.  And how many are brave enough to face that choice?

Don’t judge them, don’t blame them.  Because the question we haven’t addressed is this:  Why should women have to view their dreams as an either/or proposition?  Men don’t.  Seems to me, if we want to narrow the ambition gap, what we need to do is talk about changing a culture that assigns women the bulk of the second shift as well as the need to reconfigure the workplace structure to one that is compatible with, well, life outside of work — whether or not you have kids.  Or as Gloria Steinem once so brilliantly said:  “Don’t think about making women fit the world—think about making the world fit women.”

And speaking of Steinem, she participated in a panel at  the recent Women in the World conference in New York with Sandberg.  And according to the Business Insider, when Sandberg mentioned the lopsided numbers of women at the top of the game and asked:  “Is this a stalled revolution?”  Steinem replied:

“We’re at a critical mass stage so we’re getting more resistance. … [And the U.S.] is the worst in the world at making it possible for parents to have a life outside the home.” 

Bravo.  (There’s also the fact that when men and women are deciding whose career gets precedence, it’s often a matter of money.  Men make more.  But I digress.) And so, what I wonder is why the disconnect between work and life isn’t the main issue when we talk about the ambition gap.  All of which reminds me of a conversation we had with psychologist Barry Schwartz, the author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More” and pretty much the guru of the psychology of choice, when we were writing our book.  One of the things he told us was this:
“It’s worse in many ways for women than it is for men because of the great lie of the feminist revolution, which is not simply that women can do anything, but that women can do everything. There’s a sense that men can think that too, but society hasn’t changed enough for men to have the same kind of investment in their nurturing role as parents that women do. To have a high-powered career as a woman, every day is torture.”
Schwartz told us that back when he and his wife were raising their kids, he took pains to tell his students that his family life was an anomaly:
“I said, ‘Listen, I have a job two blocks from my house, and I only have to be in the office six hours a week—the rest of the week, no matter how hard I work, I get to choose where and I get to choose when. You can’t do this if one of you is a lawyer, the other is a doctor. So don’t kid yourself. We got lucky. The world is not set up for this. You will discover it.’”
And discover it, we do.  And that should be the conversation.  Speaking of which, we just got back from speaking at the Women’s Leadership Conference at the Cunningham Center in Columbus, Georgia.  We rode back to the airport with one of the other speakers, the transcendent Karen Walron , who had just written a post on this very issue.  Check it out, especially the comments.
And then, join our conversation.  Either/or?  Or constructive change.  You be the judge.

Tagged: Ambition gap, Barry Schwartz, Gloria steinem, Karen walrond, paradox of choice, Sheryl Sanberg, Undecided: How to ditch the endless quest for perfect and find a career -- and life -- that works for you, workplace structure

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sometimes women don't think they're choosing...but the world judges them as if they are choosing....

I'm thinking of David Brooks horrific article on Sandra Bullock pointing out that if she hadn't been making oscar winning films, maybe her tattoo artist husband would not have strayed. (sure!)

Sometimes I wish that the nobility of men--that they work for their families/wives....could also be bestowed on women....don't women work hard for their families too? you don't hear about selfish "career men"...... and I wish the nobility of women...that they sacrifice at home to make a nice life...could be conferred on men who make more effort to cook meals and keep up with laundry.

In many ways, the world has changed, but our psyches are still playing catch up.
That's a good piece there, if, it has always seemed to me that if corporations were smarter, they would utilize mother's much better when they re-entered the workplace. People can be so stupid about that, that to think that people didn't learn a lot taking care of children too.
Successful women and successful men need to share the childrearing responsibilities with each other. Couples can take turns taking on the major childrearing tasks. There's a place for hired help, day care and grandparents, but parents' attention is primary. It's always a trade-off, but never give up. We can do it all. I know great kids whose parents worked hard and terrible kids whose parents didn't. It's about quality.
You have to take into consideration the differences of biology. In my first trimester, I remember being in management meetings (why were they always first thing in the morning?) and struggling with morning sickness instead of charging ahead with my agenda. So, more than six months before she was born, our child was already forcing me to juggle her needs and the demands of work. My husband, needless to say, had no need to juggle anything.

Pregnancy, childbirth and nursing all make significant demands on the mother that can't be shared evenly, or close to evenly. So when the time comes to talk about sharing, a pattern has been set and the mother-to-be has probably already eased up on her career path.
What are magazines and publishing houses these, days 90% female?
No one's ever gonna give you permission -- which, unfortunately, is what I keep seeing at the root of these faux debates. If young women are waiting for "the culture" or "society" to bless their ambitions, they'll be waiting a long time. I had the ambition in my partnership, and my husband was a largely free-lance graphic designer. I made more money, and was more corporate-ly inclined. Granted, we had just one child and I was fortunate in having a smooth pregnancy so I did not have any issues with 8 a.m. meetings etc. As far as shared parenting goes, it absolutely was with my husband having much more of the take to school/pick up from day care responsibilities. The only way having a child impacted my ambition was my choice to stay in a less stressful job during her elementary school years. But I also did an mba on the side so I'd be ready for the next move.

No, nobody's going to give you both endless flex-time AND the big bucks job, so you do have to make that choice. But the most important choice you have to make is in your partner, and how you two negotiate the jobsharing aspects of being a parent. That's the heart of it, and something that seems to have got lost since the '70's.
I am afraid to get married and have kids bc I will have to give up my life for theirs. In the words of Kim Deal "Motherhood means mental freeze."
In a way it's easier for those of us who have no choice. Single, working class, and used to be middle class moms don't have to agonize over the decision to work or not work. It's more about career choices, which is where the ambition comes in. Sadly the better paying/ high achiever positions sap more of your time and energy. Sadly, we're forced to neglect our children, slightly or considerably, in order to support them in the manner we'd like. If only there was another way.
That was a good read. I always wondered whether I am just a meaningless spot between the two words!
Thanks for addressing some important issues. I would submit that ambition also is not terribly compatible with marriage. I suspect many folks, of both genders, find it hard to be a good husband or wife while pursuing ambitions that can mean extremely long hours, lots of travel, high stress, etc.
I hear you loud and clear, and fight the fight every day. I love this little gem from the NY Times a few years ago (
“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Even when men and women start off with equal jobs, they make decisions along the way — to emphasize career or not, to trade brutal hours for high salary or not.”

She goes on to suggest that the perception of flexibility is itself a matter of perception. In her study, she was struck by how often the wife’s job was seen by both spouses as being more flexible than the husband’s. By way of example she describes two actual couples, one in which he is a college professor and she is a physician and one in which she is a college professor and he is a physician. In either case, Deutsch says “both the husband and wife claimed the man’s job was less flexible.”
"Why should women have to view their dreams as an either/or proposition? Men don’t. "

Yes, we do. We take jobs with less travel so we can spend more time with our kids, if we can afford it. If not, we sacrifice our health and lifespan to take more risky, dangerous jobs to support our family, if need be.

You want an answer to your rhetorical question? Ask a man instead of putting words in the mouths of half of humanity.
Statistics are always suspect, but I just read this in "More Magazine": 39% Percentage of women currently running Fortune 500 companies who had a stay-at-home husband at some point, according to a Bloomburg Businessweek report. I can imagine that that is so, based on my small observation. And given the age they probably are, I'd guess they experienced a certain amount of community judgement. No different than their male counterparts, really, minus the judgement. Hence my thoughts on the matter.