The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life

The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life


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"These are the 'know your value' conversations that we need to have. These women—their challenges, choices, and successes—are all of us." —Mika Brzezinski

Over the last sixty years, women's lives have transformed radically from generation to generation. Without a template to follow—a way to peek into the future to catch a glimpse of what leaving this job or marrying that person might mean to us decades from now—women make important decisions blindly, groping for a way forward, winging it, and hoping it all works out.

As they faced unexpectedly fraught decisions about their own lives, journalists Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace found themselves wondering about the women they'd graduated alongside. What happened to these women who seemed set to reap the rewards of second-wave feminism, on the brink of taking over the world? Where did their ambition lead them?

So they tracked down their classmates and, over several hundred hours of interviews, gathered and mapped data about real women's lives that has been missing from our conversations about women and the workplace. Whether you're deciding if you should pass up a promotion in favor of more flex time, planning when to get pregnant, or wondering what the ramifications are of being the only person in your house who ever unloads the dishwasher, The Ambition Decisions is a guide to the changes that may seem arbitrary but are life defining, by women who've been there.

Organized by theme, each chapter draws on real women's stories of facing down crisis, transition, and decision-making to illustrate broader trends Schank and Wallace observed. Each chapter wraps up with a useful bulleted list of questions to consider and tips to integrate that will guide women of all ages along the way to finding purpose and passion in work and life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525558811
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/19/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,248,332
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Hana Schank is a public interest technology fellow at New America, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post. This is her second book.

Elizabeth Wallace worked for print magazines including Vogue, Nylon, Seventeen, Us Weekly, and Lucky, and is now a freelance editor and writer. She contributes regularly to Domino and Architectural Digest.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


As we began to interview our college friends from two decades ago, connecting with them over Skype in their homes in the United States, Eastern and Central Europe, and South America, we were prepared to hear diverse narratives of women killing it across a broad spectrum of careers. Armed with their rŽsumŽs, some vague details from their smiling Facebook feeds, and spotty but indelible twenty-year-old memories, we began each interview the same way, asking, "When you got to Northwestern, what was your plan? How did that turn out?"

And we were not disappointed. We talked to a legal director at a women's rights nonprofit who is raising two children but also carves out time each week for running trail marathons, a television writer turned advertising copywriter turned stay-at-home mom tooling away at her long-dreamt-of novel, a rabbi, several financial executives, an artist with a niche Etsy following, and an on-air reporter in a major media market. We spoke with a former friend who is a first-generation Vietnamese American, and learned that she has been wheelchair-bound since 2000 due to multiple sclerosis. She works sixty-plus hours a week as a rehabilitation physician at an academic hospital, and jokes with her patients that "walking is overrated." We interviewed a teacher who uses her free summers to work for a nearby national park counting birds, and her evenings and weekends to shred it with her all-female hard-rock band. Many of these successful, dynamic women warned us that "my life isn't that interesting," as if they feared their stories wouldn't live up to those of their former college classmates (this warning both irked us, prompting us to instantly message each other, "Stop diminishing yourself-you were a badass in college!" and had us identifying with our friends' inherent need to self-deprecate). We assured them that we had yet to find anyone's life a bore. These women all struck us as interesting, particularly in the context of our memories of them from our college days. Some life stories followed a trajectory we could have predicted back in college (had we bothered to give any thought to what our forty-year-old selves would be like); others took a sharp left turn into something radically different and often fascinating.

As varied as our conversations were, over time we began to see elements of people's paths repeating; one woman would say something that sounded eerily similar to something we'd heard from another woman, even though those friends lived 3,000 miles away from each other and had gone without any contact for more than twenty years. Everyone asked, as we had asked each other when we started this process, "What happened to so and so?" And as we slowly, over a year's time, gathered the answers to those questions, we collected stories that were immensely relatable. Each one had us nodding our heads and thinking, That sounds like my life. Or I've struggled with exactly that problem, too. Or My spouse and I have that conversation constantly. The fact that the life details of this group of so-called ordinary women felt so resonant is precisely what drove us to want to share their stories. Woven together, they began to paint a tableau of what life has been like for this group of women, who came of age in early-'90s America, at a time full of hope and potential but also of economic instability and political change. These stories began to show us where we all collectively succeeded (creating generally "happy" lives) and what tripped us all up (moving up at work exactly when and how we wanted, balancing personal life and work ambition), and revealed some surprising commonalities along the way. When one person with a rock-star career shares that she's married to a stay-at-home dad, it's unique. When five people share that same partnership configuration, it's something else entirely. So we began to analyze each of our friends' paths, noting the similarities and the disparities. One overcaffeinated morning, we grabbed a scrap of paper and began sketching out our friends' trajectories. That's when we started to note significant crossover in their life choices and resulting arcs.

After graduation, most of the forty-three women we interviewed went on to either land a first job or pursue a graduate degree. Due to the dismal economic climate at the time, a few people moved back home and worked in unpaid internships until they found jobs. A cluster of women went into banking, finance, and management consulting; others found work in journalism, PR, or advertising; a third group headed to medical school, law school, and assorted master's degree programs; three moved to Los Angeles to pursue work in film and television. Throughout the '90s, the women earned promotions, changed careers, finished graduate programs, or headed back to graduate school. They also got married (all but two got married or are partnered, though three later divorced). Eight married their college boyfriends. Others met future spouses at work or in bars, on blind dates or online. Everyone continued to climb the job ladder, to higher-status jobs with bigger salaries and bigger responsibilities: Two of the lawyers made partner, while a third went to work for the Justice Department; a screenwriter watched an A-list movie star claim the lead in her first screenplay; a TV writer turned ad exec earned a promotion to associate creative director. As we traced our friends' career arcs, we discovered that every woman in the group followed a near identical trajectory up until the point she had her first child (nine of the women did not have children, for varying reasons). Then their lives diverged along three clear, distinct routes.

One group of women became what we labeled High Achievers. These thirteen women are C-level or C-suite-adjacent executives (as in, they describe their offices as "down the hall from the CEO"), are recognized in their chosen field, or manage large teams. The women who populate this group include the CMO of a midsize banking group, a prominent screenwriter-director, an accomplished physician at a big university hospital, the owner of a successful PR firm, a Hollywood actress, a partner in a well-known corporate law firm, and a senior rabbi with a large congregation. For these women, motherhood didn't have much of an effect on their careers. They stuck to the trajectory they'd set out on right after college graduation, and many stayed with one company for more than a decade as they made their way through the ranks.

For another group-eleven women-motherhood was an abrupt end to the careers they'd been pursuing. This group, the Opt Outers, left work after having children, though only two of them had planned to. Many had day care or a nanny lined up after maternity leave, but found they simply couldn't bring themselves to leave their child with someone else. Others asked their employers for flexible schedules, were turned down, and quit. Many also said that they'd done the working-mother cost-benefit analysis and the math just wasn't on the side of their careers-their spouses earned more than they did, day care or a nanny would eat up a sizable chunk of their earnings, and therefore the reasonable thing to do was to leave work and become a full-time caregiver. Some simply didn't like their jobs and had spouses who could support the family, so they decided to stay home. One of the women was laid off from her corporate-track job and subsequently decided to stay home, and a second chose to leave work after her fourth child was born. Today the majority of them have been out of the workforce for an extended period of time, though some take on occasional part-time or freelance work.

The remaining nineteen women continued working but chose to move into jobs that allowed them some schedule flexibility, or stayed at jobs that let them leave early enough to be home for the school bus, in some cases, or dinner, in others, or to work from home some days. We called this group the Flex Lifers. A pediatrician began job-sharing with another physician so she could be home with her children two days a week. A sales-training executive whose husband had been a stay-at-home dad decided her job was too stressful, quit, moved to a cheaper city, and now sells crafts and art on Etsy. This group also includes four women without children who opted to scale back their career tracks; these women have all chosen not to have children not so they could focus more on their careers, which have been indeed fulfilling, but so they could foster more satisfying personal lives.

High Achievers

In labeling this group "High Achievers," we are not inferring that women who are Opt Outers or Flex Lifers wanted for achievements, or that this group has the best lives, or are the richest, or the smartest, or the happiest. We call them High Achievers based on a mainstream societal definition of professional success-a "big" or "important" job, high salary, prominence in their field-combined with the way that the women themselves talk about their own careers. These are women who were bursting with pride at their work-related accomplishments, who described career arcs where they said yes to every opportunity to move up in their chosen field, and who prioritized their careers above many other areas of their lives (exercise, for example, or home-cooked family dinners, both elements that many women outside of this group felt were essential to their daily functioning).

High Achievers have a number of life elements in common:

A demanding job that brings professional validation and/or financial reward

A hard-driving work ethic with little desire to reduce commitment to or hours at work

If married or partnered, an identification as the primary or equal financial provider

If a parent, a willingness to cede primary child-rearing to either their partner or another caregiver

A commitment to doing what it takes to move ahead professionally (moving to another city, for example, or traveling frequently), even if it means personal sacrifices

The High Achiever is an archetype we are familiar with. Growing up in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s, it felt like there was a binary choice for women, or at least that's how life was on TV and in the movies: You could stay at home and be a mom, or you could go off to work and be wildly successful there. You could be The Brady Bunch's Carol Brady, or you could be The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Mary Richards (but you couldn't be both). And off-screen, the era was filled with women making a name for themselves through sheer force of will, intelligence, and grit: Billie Jean King, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Jordan. We had a template for working hard, being determined, and achieving success, for being the first and often the best. And closer to home, we personally knew women who were High Achievers. Liz's mother immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in the '60s and became an executive in the very white, male-dominated biotech industry, setting the ambition and achievement bar high for her daughter. Hana's grandmother inherited the family's wholesale bead business from her father and grew it into a company with international reach, supporting her family with her earnings; she frequently took buying trips to Japan and Europe at a time when transcontinental air travel was still new and uncommon.

When we graduated from Northwestern, we assumed many of our friends would take high-achieving paths, and each time we spoke with someone who had, we were proud to hear about her successes. We initially undertook this project hoping to encounter a large percentage of High Achievers, as if each interview that yielded a High Achiever could serve as a salve for our own perceived professional flounderings-see, it could be done! Women could conquer the corner office, save lives, support their families, go home and help their children with long division and be happy. It was just us-we couldn't do it. But others could. So initially, every High Achiever we encountered felt like a global high five for women, and left us feeling like we'd checked off another box: Feminist dream of our foremothers: check. Woman who supports her family and feels good doing it: check. Friend who became some version of the person she'd hoped to become back in college: check. The High Achievers were indeed a group to be proud of-but not falling into the High Achiever category, we would come to learn, was not cause for disappointment. We would discover that all three designations were much more complicated and nuanced than that.

The High Achiever: Leilani

Leilani came to Northwestern from a medium-size city in Idaho, where she had been a varsity captain of her cheerleading squad and an alpha girl at her high school. She was gregarious, always ready for a party, with a big, blond, late-'80s perm. She lived in our dorm freshman year, but didn't rush the Greek system until sophomore year. She was tight with a group of girls from the dorm who pledged a different sorority but friendly and outgoing with all students, stopping to chat at the dining hall and introducing people at Wednesday Munchies nights. Though we wouldn't have articulated it this way back in college, she was a born leader, the kind of girl who might someday run for office or lead large groups of people toward innovative solutions with a whiteboard and boss-lady attitude.

We didn't discuss ambition or career plans with Leilani much in college. She was often racing through the sorority house en route to the north end of campus, where the fraternities resided. Her boyfriend was a swimmer, and as a result there were usually a few other swimmers dotting our formal parties, setups engineered by Leilani to help out her dateless sorority sisters. But when we reconnected with her decades later, a much more determined picture began to crystallize, one of a woman who had not only embraced the social aspect of college full on, but who pulsed with ambition, who had come to Northwestern to succeed. "I was going to be the best prosecuting attorney anybody had ever seen," Leilani told us. "I was going to be Atticus Finch from Idaho. I was going to be the ruling DA of my county, and I was going to end up on a court bench at some point."

Leilani declared a political science major, in preparation for applying to law school. But a couple of years in, she began to rethink that path. "I paid for my own education, so there were student loans hanging over my head," Leilani recalled. "The thought of having more student debt and going to school another three years, at a time when there was a glut of lawyers on the market, made me revisit my plan." Meanwhile, Leilani had registered to be a bone marrow donor. Junior year, she learned she was a match for a leukemia patient in need of a transplant. She went through with the donation senior year, an arduous and painful process, and it upended the way she had been thinking about her career plans. "I had my world rocked, and it left me unsettled. I started to see my priorities in a different light: Life could be short, and I knew that eventually I had to follow my passions."


Excerpted from "The Ambition Decisions"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Hana Schank.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents

Prologue xi

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 Career 13

Chapter 2 Ambition 53

Chapter 3 Marriage 95

Chapter 4 Parenting 135

Chapter 5 Economics 173

Chapter 6 Change 209

Conclusion, or Group Therapy 249

Acknowledgments 257

Bibliography 261

Notes 263

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