Nourish Women’s Ambitions

by Marie Wilson, President & Founder, The White House Project

In 1984, I was working in Iowa as a civic activist and building Drake University’s division of women’s programming. I was no stranger to leadership. Yet I was surprised when a friend, who was then the only woman serving on the Des Moines City Council, called me with a challenge: “If you don’t run for the open seat on the council, I’m going to resign.” She was tired of being alone.

I never would have put myself forward if she hadn’t picked up the phone, and I went on to win the male-dominated race. In the years since, as I have fought for women’s leadership and girls’ resiliency, I have thought often of that life-changing call, and how that small act had such a ripple effect through my life and my work.

Many of us need this push to excel, since our society is so ambivalent about our ambition. We are more than 50 percent of the population, yet as of 2004 we comprised only 14 percent of Congress and were only eight of the CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. Today, those in middle management — the majority of future corporate leaders — are about 90 percent male and white. Women have entered the workforce in massive numbers, but most of us remain at the lower rungs of the hierarchy.

Countless published articles have claimed that the primary reason we haven’t rocketed to higher ranks is that we just don’t want to and that we don’t have the same drive men have. That’s an oversimplified and sexist explanation. Sure, there are some women who aren’t particularly ambitious, but the same thing can be said for some men. The reasons why more women aren’t ascending to the highest ranks of corporate and political leadership are complex; they include a heavy dose of good old-fashioned discrimination in the workplace and a second shift where women still shoulder a disproportionate share of work in the home.

Still, we do sometimes hold ourselves back from pursuing our dreams and reaching our full potential. Some of us feel intense guilt for wanting something more than our traditional roles of wife and mother. We’re also subjected to a cultural fear that if we focus intensely on our careers, we’ll opt not to have families or we’ll challenge our traditional roles in them. Because of this fear, society actively tries to limit our choices, refusing to provide child care and new models of corporate success that would allow us to have both a career and a family. Women are still forced to choose between professional success and family life in ways that men are not.

Because of the obstacles in our way, many women need to be entreated to enter public service beyond the home or beyond their current aspirations. I and many of my female colleagues have greatly benefited from getting the right encouragement at the right time. According to research,5 37 percent of women who have run for office say they hadn’t seriously considered it until someone else brought it up (compared to 18 percent of men who needed prompting). Clearly, our support of each other is powerful.

Let’s reach beyond and push the culture to change, one woman at a time. Surely you know someone who should be urged to go back to college, start a business, or run for the school board or Congress or president of the United States. Women are half the population. Let’s help run the place, at every level, in every sector. Everyone will be better off.

Call to Action

1. Encourage female friends and family members to stretch themselves and reach their greatest ambitions. Call someone today and offer to support her success by cheering her on, helping out with child care, reading a résumé, or running her campaign.

2. Become a “great mentioner.” When you notice someone you think is terrific, tell folks in your circle. Get a buzz going on about her possibilities and drop her name when opportunities arise.

3. Change the country by targeting one woman a month whom you will encourage to run for office. The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org/become_leader/index.html) provides tips and resources. Send her a check as her first contributor, even if it’s a small one. It may be the best investment you ever made.

Excerpted from the book Fifty Ways to Improve Women's Lives © 2009 by the National Council of Women's Organizations. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.