SAME OLD STORY: CLINTON'S CAMPAIGN PROVES THAT THE SCARLET LETTER FOR 21ST CENTURY WOMAN STANDS FOR AMBITION

I'm traveling through the Little Rock, Arkansas airport hours after meeting in New York with a group of women to talk Hillary and women and ambition. Exiting security, the first thing I see, through the airport bookstore's window, is a large black and white poster of a photograph of Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea walking up onto a podium. The caption reads:

"Get Ready to Pary Like It's 1992".

Don't put on your party shoes just yet. There's still a hill to climb. And not just over substantive differences between candidates. Hillary's up against the same old story: it's tough being a working woman--and her campaign proves it, say female execs. They may or may not back her, but successful city women say  Clinton's travails show what they're up against.

Tory Johnson, CEO, Women For Hire, workplace contribitor on "Good Morning America" and anchor of "Home Work" on ABC News Now called a breakfast meeting to talk about what successful working women are saying about Hillary Clinton. Tory's resulting article was originally published in the New York Post, February 25, 2008 and is reprinted with permission below.

Nypost22508_5SISTER ACT: Tory Johnson (center) talking Hillary and careers with (from left to right) career coach and business psychologist Debra Condren, Working Mother Media CEO Carol Evans, attorney Sara Newman and Hyperion Books publisher Ellen Archer.

Guest post by Tory Johnson, CEO, Women For Hire.

LOVE her or hate her, win or lose, successful working women are talking about Hillary Clinton.

But it's not her politics that have them fired up. What getting under their skin is a laundry list of gender-nuanced issues brought to the fore by  Clinton's run for the ultimate corner office.

These issues - whether it's disdain of aggressive women, the trials of tearing up in public or even scrutiny of one's clothing - resonate deeply among women in the workplace, because they're the same issues they say they face daily.

As the CEO of Women for Hire, a national recruitment services firm, there hasn't been a day since the Iowa caucus when I haven't heard from women about aspects of Clinton's candidacy that reflect their own career challenges, whether they pertain to issues of ambition, ability or appearance.

"I have this conversation with other working women all the time," says Carley Roney, founder of popular wedding site TheKnot.com. Roney argues passionately that

Clinton's travails demonstrate a discomfort with women who seek power that hits close to home.

"It's very upsetting to watch these issues unfold in the media," she says.

The A-word

The biggest and most frequent complaint has to do with a double standard women have lived with throughout their professional lives: aggressiveness works wonders for men, but when a woman gets in people's faces, it's a turnoff.

"We live in a 21st century world, but we have a 20th century mentality when it comes to women and ambition," says Hyperion publisher Ellen Archer. "'A' remains the scarlet letter for women in the 21st century, only today the 'A' stands for ambition rather than adulteress."

To put it simply, says business psychologist and career coach Debra Condren, the author of "Ambition Is Not a Dirty Word": "Ambitious men are 'go-getters,' but ambitious women are 'bitches.'

"Whether it's a woman seeking a workplace promotion or the presidency, a criticism is levied against her: 'She's too ambitious,' which is code for 'Who does she think she is, anyway?' " says Condren.

"I hear it all the time of high-aiming women."

Whether or not they support Hillary's candidacy, many women say it's a stab in the gut to see an issue they've struggled with writ large across the national stage. For real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran,

Clinton's candidacy illustrates that "when it comes to watching an ambitious woman, most men and women feel confused."

"Tough is confused with cold; single-mindedness is confused with arrogance; and if a woman doesn't dress the feminine and fashionable part, she's labeled masculine, the deadliest insult of all."

It bothers Sara Newman, a law associate on the partner track, that Clinton is under constant pressure to show her softer side and temper her ambition, to conform to what the public expects of women. Nobody expects John McCain to cough up a recipe for chocolate chip cookies, or analyzes Barack Obama's clothing choices.

"There's a fine line between being feminine and being ambitious," she says. "Leaning too far in either direction causes people to lose respect for you, and the balancing act is exhausting."

And if you've been a woman in a man's world, it's impossible not to feel a pang of empathy when you see Hillary in, say, one of the early primary debates, a lone female lined up alongside a row of men in solid dark suits.

Says Carol Evans, CEO of Working Mother Media: "If you have ever been the only woman on a board of directors, the only woman CEO at a conference, the only woman member of a sales team, all of which I have been, you know how hard it is to be the minority in the room."

Getting it from both sides

To make matters worse, it's not just men who hold fast to these double standards.

"There are many people - men and women - who find the idea of a woman telling us what to do creepy," says Us magazine editor Janice Min.

Some women say it's been upsetting during the campaign to see their fellow females exhibit the same discomfort with a hard-charging woman they've seen from men.

"This isn't just your standard misogyny," says Roney. "It's women turning against our own class of women who've decided to put work first. That's so upsetting to me."

She adds, "I'm simpatico with Hillary. I'm often the person in the meeting who says, 'Can we get back to what we were talking about?' I'm a driven person and really interested in getting things done, as is she. But it's not OK to everyone that she's driven by work."

It's a matter of internalizing others' judgments, believes Condren, who says she sees it all the time.

"We, as women, absorb society's negative attitude about females with big career dreams, turn it against ourselves, and struggle with a socially sanctioned failure to embrace our own ambition," she says.

Susan Morrison, articles editor at the New Yorker and the editor of the new book "Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers," says there's another reason some working women judge Clinton too harshly - because they're judging themselves too harshly, as they try to juggle their domestic lives and their working lives.

"They are lurching through their days worried that they may be cutting corners both at home and at work," she says.

Many of the women interviewed for this story didn't have to look far for an incident in their own work lives that's been brought to mind by watching Hillary's presidential bid.

For example, when she hears the argument that the global community would respect a male president more than a women, Newman, an associate at the labor law firm Levy Ratner, is reminded of a gender blow she was dealt by a previous employer.

She spent months preparing for a negotiation only to be told 48 hours before the big day that a male colleague would take her place at the table.

"I explained that I knew the issues better than anyone else, and my boss agreed, but he said a male could come off as a stronger force," she says. "I was crushed."

Likewise, the inevitable media frenzy after Clinton teared up in New Hampshire rang a bell.

Newman says there have been times she's wanted to cry on the job, but held back because she feared the reaction of colleagues. She worried they'd assume she was "incapable of handling an assignment or dealing with the normal frustrations that occur in a workplace.

"My thoughts were affirmed when I saw how vilified Hillary was over those minimal tears," she says.

It all points to yet another double standard, says Evans.

"When men cry, it is seen as a special moment to be cherished and viewed with reverence," she says. "When a woman cries, it's seen as not being able to stay in control. And if a woman starts to cry and controls herself, it must have been fake. But if a man starts to cry and stays in control, that's powerful."

Clothes and kids

Nowhere, though, does Clinton elicit more empathy from women than when the discussion turns to clothes and the trials of working motherhood.

An ad sales manager reluctantly admitted that she and her colleagues - both male and female - routinely dish about their boss, who favors tailored pantsuits over feminine dresses or skirts.

"We joke that she must be hiding her fat ankles or piano legs," she says, adding that seeing the same jabs levied at Clinton makes the comments a lot less funny.

During a photo shoot over coffee at Michael's for this article last week, women gave Clinton points for joking in a recent Us magazine spread about a brightly patterned coat that resembled a recycled carpet, and they cringed at David Letterman's quips about Clinton's trademark pantsuits. 

"Every working woman has those moments in our closets and careers," says Evans, who notes that since men's business attire has little variation, it rarely elicits much comment.

"The uniform of businesswomen varies widely based on age, job status, income, body type - even ethnicity," she says. "Dress selection is one more tough hurdle for us that men don't have to leap over."

Not every woman faces the task of responding to a charge that she's "pimping out" her daughter, as Clinton recently did. But Marissa Thalberg, founder of networking group Executive Moms, says Clinton's defense of Chelsea likely resonated with many working mothers. 

"For that moment, she chose to be a strong mother first," she says. "That was inadvertently one of the best messages for women: Even a female presidential candidate doesn't have to entirely silo parenthood from career to prove she can be effective at the latter."

Clinton has "achieved what many women in her generation didn't dare to do - take on a demanding career and be a wife and mother," says Hyperion's Archer. "Sadly, many women continue to attack other women for wanting more than a stay-at-home job with the kids."

Archer says she shares a problem with Clinton.

"I'm not supposed to do it all - be ambitious, have a good marriage and raise kids. Society would prefer that I feel torn, guilty and exhausted. Sorry to disappoint everyone, but I'm not any of those things."

Still, a technology consultant says watching Clinton's struggle "has me wondering if there's such a thing as excessive ambition. Was she asking for trouble when she dared to dream too big? Might I be setting myself up for the same disappointment if I go for a position that has been held by men for the history of my employer?"

Of course, some are quick to caution that not everything boils down to gender issues, and Hillary is just one woman seeking one job. Everyone has their own quirks, foibles and vulnerabilities, and she hardly carries the torch for our gender singlehandedly.

Still, questions like these are the reason why "all successful, self-made women are eagerly watching" the election unfold, says Corcoran. And for her and others, she says, it's a kind of referendum.

"This is a test on whether or not American values have changed enough to allow a strong woman to gracefully assume the most powerful position," she says.

« CNN: Political Name Calling: Sen. McCain & The B-Word | Main | The S.O.B. Diet: Silda Spitzer & The Sisterhood »

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Comments

wow. does this resonate!! I have been the only woman in the boardroom with the guys. I have held my tongue when males colleagues referred to Hillary as a bitch. What do we call male candidates we don't admire? As a women running a machinery manufacturer, I wonder what my male colleagues say about me behind my back? What am I bearing witness to by being silent?

I challenge all of us to use these issues as a discussion starter with our male colleagues. I am a lone female executive in a field of construction managers and real estate developers. Our conversations frequently touch on politics, and the men I speak with are surprised when I ask them what they really expect of Ms. Clinton? If she is too tough, she is called a b*tch or an automaton; if she shows emotion of personal connection, she is being manipulative or is too soft to be a good leader. I tell them that is an impossible dichotomy for a powerful woman to balance, as I should know!
Most of the guys I work with don't even know what they are buying into until I point it out to them. One of them recently repeated an insulting nickname for Hillary, that was related to her body type. I asked my colleague when he had ever heard a powerful man insulted for his body type, or made fun of for his clothing choices, or defined by his children or grandchildren (Nancy Pelosi's political intro as a grandmother?). We can only keep speaking to these issues, as straightforward as possible, with men and women.

It's not just the guys--and many men are pro-Hillary or pro-women (even if they don't support her campaign). We hav to ask, what are we women doing to ourselves? One 18-year-old young woman said to me last week, "I'm perfectly ready for an African American president, but I'm just not ready for a woman in that role." When women internalize the cultural double standard that ambitious men are go-getters, but ambitious women are bitches, we buy into socially sanctioned self-sabotage of our big dreams--and we tear down other women who are going after their own dreams and who want to make the contributions they were born to make. No wonder so many women simultaneously crave and fear our ambition.

An NPR report noted that people who would never say "I didn't vote for So & So because of..."
skin color or ethnicity don't seem to have any problem saying they won't vote for Hilary because she's a woman. The inability to recognize the blatant discriminatory essence of this boggles the mind. Or maybe it's just that they don't care if they are open in their prejudice against women.

On another note - I substitute preached at a local congregation recently and weas told by their pastor that they thought I was really nice, and did a good job. No big deal, right?
Well, prior to that opportunity, they were calling me "wacko" for bringing criminal charges against a colleague - for "forcible touching". Unwanted. Not asked for. A colleague already on suspension for clergy sexual misconduct. But I'm the wacko!!

Joanna, thanks for your comment. Can you advise us which NPR program reported that finding? Stunning, indeed. Also check out www.DamselsInSuccess.com for discussions on sexual harassment--as well as all things ambitious women.

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I am a business psychologist, researcher, author, executive coach, and career advisor. I lead workshops and lecture frequently on women’s need to embrace our ambition. I founded the Women’s Business Alliance, a motivational think tank for more than 2,500 women. For more details, see my about page.

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