Power, Ambition, Money, Failure: Confronting Career Taboos

kolbertContributed by Kathryn Kolbert, Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College

Power. Ambition. Money. Failure. These are taboos that haunt women today, stunting their climb to leadership positions in both the public and private sectors. We may not like to talk about them, and we don’t necessarily need to conform to typically masculine styles of approaching them, but women must learn to overcome our discomfort with these demons if we are to achieve parity in the workforce.

The statistics are all too familiar to many of us. While today we can see women in positions of power — from heads of state to university presidents to Wall Street executives – more broadly women are stuck, holding only 16% to 22% [PDF] of the leadership positions in many arenas, and in some areas, such as the military and Fortune 500 CEOs much less. For women of color, the numbers are even worse; of the 15.7% of corporate officer positions in Fortune 500 companies that are held by women, just 1.7% [PDF] are held by women of color.

Part of our inability to advance to leadership positions in the numbers that we’d like, of course, is due to longstanding discrimination and cultural biases that lead men in high-ranking positions to want colleagues that look and act like them.

Part is also due to the fact that women who off-ramp, to raise their children and care for family members, are disadvantaged by skeptical, inflexible employers who view such moves with suspicion. The Center for Work-Life Policy’s May study, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited [PDF}, found that “73% percent of women trying to return to the workforce after a voluntary timeout for childcare or other reasons have trouble finding a job.” Of those who do return, more than 25% reported a decrease in their management responsibilities and 22% returned with a lower job title.

But whether we like to discuss it or not, part of the problem stems from the fact that many women are uncomfortable with power, ambition, money and failure. In some cases women handle these issues differently than many of their male colleagues.

When it comes to power, many men come at their work believing they are equipped to handle power. So they are more likely to volunteer for tough assignments and leadership roles. Many women have a more ambivalent relationship to power and often wait to be asked, whether for a move into a top job or, in the public sphere, to make a run for office.

Confronting Taboos Head On

As for ambition, many men are looking for their next opportunity from the minute they enter the workforce, and they more often view a current assignment in terms of where it will get them down the road. As Sally Helgesen and Julie Johnson found in their new book, The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work, many women are more focused on the day-to-day quality of their current experience. They also believe that if they do their job well their competence will be recognized and rewarded. As a consequence they are less likely to talk themselves up among their colleagues.

Despite the many myths that surround women and money — men handle the household money; women are emotional about money and impulsive about financial decisions; women don’t have the math skills to handle financial decisions – in recent years many more women have become adept at handling financial decisions for their households and in their workplaces. In recent years, financial literacy programs for women are helping to give women necessary skills and more sophisticated resources.

Nevertheless, although women start businesses in large numbers — women own 40% of the private businesses in the United States, for example– those businesses are significantly smaller and employ many fewer workers. According to the Center for Women’s Business Research only 4.2% of all revenue is generated by businesses owned by women in the United States and only 20% of women-owned businesses had employees. To make gains, women business owners are going to need to become much more facile with money, using it to leverage their businesses for growth.

Finally, failure. Failure is an essential element and valuable learning experience in most careers, but my experience is that many women personalize failure, blaming themselves when they don’t achieve to their own expectations, instead of seeking out objective reasons for where things went wrong and learning from them. Men, tend to be more resilient in the face of failure, quickly bouncing back and moving on.

Embracing New Styles of Leadership

Today, research into leadership is moving beyond the traditional masculine-hierarchical models. Scholars are now exploring the possibility that many women (and some men) have different leadership styles, from a more democratic approach to greater optimism, and a focus on empowering followers rather than commanding them. And scholars in numerous fields are beginning to demonstrate how biases in documenting women’s potential for leadership hinder the advancement of women as well as the organizations that might benefit from women’s contributions.

Nonetheless, for women to make gains overall it’s important that we be willing to talk about power, ambition, money and failure. We need to develop skills to overcome our discomforts and address the mischievous spirits that may be holding us back.

Kathryn Kolbert is the Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College, which in September will launch the Athena Leadership Lab, professional development courses for women in all stages of their careers, designed to teach the practical elements of leadership — from the art of negotiation to developing gravitas to presenting a powerful argument. A full course catalog and details can be found at

A public-interest attorney and journalist, Kolbert has been recognized by The National Law Journal as one of the “100 Most Influential Lawyers in America,” and by The American Lawyer as one of 45 public-interest lawyers “whose vision and commitment are changing lives.”

0 Response

  1. Thank you, Kathryn, for your insights.

    I presume to recommend highly a book written by Maddy Dychtwald, with Christine Larson.Its title is Influence: How Women’s Soaring Economic Power Will Transform Our World for the Better,

    I agree with you that women need to be “be willing to talk about power, ambition, money and failure” but they must also be prepared to do so.

    You, Marti Barletta, Maddy Dychtwald, Sylvia Lafair, and Christine Pearson (to name but five of many) are providing the information and counsel to accomplish that goal.

  2. ChristineBrownQuinn

    Very thought-provoking article, thank you.

    I am wondering whether some women intentionally decide not to grow their business for personal/family reasons? Anecdotally, I know of a number of women where this is precisely the case, but I haven’t seen any studies or statistics to know whether these cases are really the exception rather than the rule.