Why Do Successful Women Feel So Guilty?

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A business leader like Sheryl Sandberg shouldn't have needed to give female college graduates a pep talk about ambition. But she did -- and here's why. 

sandberg.jpgReuters

In her Atlantic cover story, Anne-Marie Slaughter does a fine job of describing the trade-offs that professional women continue to face: the agonies of choice that confront women every time they race out the door to attend a meeting and leave a crying child or troubled teenager behind. Kudos to her for revealing such a tough moment in her own storied career, and for reaffirming that the complexities of juggling family and career don't end when one's toddler goes off to kindergarten.

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As the president of Barnard College, though, I must take issue with her characterization of Sheryl Sandberg's 2011 commencement address. Far from reproaching young women for failing to try harder, Sandberg enthusiastically urged them to seize their potential, their energies, and their ambition. Not only were our students deeply inspired by her words, they were inflamed by her passion and by her obvious concern for their lives and careers.

All good commencement addresses contain at least one memorable phrase, a bit of wit or wisdom that the graduates take with them to that scary place known as the real world. In Sandberg's address, the advice the students heard -- the words they repeated over and over after the address -- was the exhortation to "lean in." To "keep your foot on the gas pedal" and "not leave before you leave."

For young women about to enter the workforce, this was heady stuff. Because Sandberg wasn't telling our students to be passionate, or to find themselves, or to learn to work with others (the true, but tired, phrases of commencement). She was telling them to be ambitious. To push hard. To feel power and enjoy it. These are sentiments that young women rarely hear today, buffeted as they so often are by measured advice on juggling, balancing, and seeking some ephemeral all.

Like Slaughter, Sandberg also tiptoed into the treacherous area of guilt. But while Slaughter's piece focuses on the more obvious guilt women face both in leaving their children to attend to their jobs and leaving their jobs to attend to their children, Sandberg spoke more obliquely about the guilt women feel even in taking jobs that might, someday, force them to make these trade-offs.

The irony, of course, and the sadness, is that two women of Slaughter and Sandberg's stature even feel the need to speak about guilt. Did Bill Gates feel guilty as he built the behemoth of Microsoft? Was Bill Clinton racked by personal failings as he advanced his political career? Maybe, but neither of them really dwells upon these topics in public. Contemporary women, by contrast (and I count myself among them), seem positively obsessed with our own trade-offs and misgivings. We feel guilty about leaving the halls of power too quickly, or too late. About pushing our children too hard, or not hard enough. About not home-making cupcakes that are sufficiently organic, vegan, and nut-free.

Why is this happening? Because women born in the wake of feminism -- women like Sandberg, Slaughter, and me -- have been subtly striving all our lives to prove that we have picked up the torch that feminism provided. That we haven't failed the mothers and grandmothers who made our ambitions possible. And yet, in a deep and profound way, we are failing. Because feminism wasn't supposed to make us feel guilty, or prod us into constant competitions over who is raising better children, organizing more cooperative marriages, or getting less sleep. It was supposed to make us free -- to give us not only choices but the ability to make these choices without constantly feeling that we'd somehow gotten it wrong.

I worry, frequently, about the swamps of guilt my students will encounter. I worry about the quest for perfection that we, their teachers and role models, have so lovingly thrust upon them. And I worry that we are not giving this generation of young women what they really need: a promise that they will be all right. Some reassurance that it's okay to fail and try again and pick another route. The wisdom to know that having the opportunity to do anything doesn't mean they have to do everything.

Which is why Sandberg's speech was so powerful. Don't pull back before you've even started, she advised the Barnard graduates. Don't sell yourself short just because you fear what lies ahead. And revel in your ambition, whatever it may be.

Today's young women face a tough road ahead. They are entering adulthood at a moment of deep political and economic uncertainty, a moment when sexism and misogyny seem, sadly, to be back on the rise. They know full well that they will face all the problems that confront their male friends, plus those that still fall with particular force upon women. They know that juggling will be hard. But they need, and want, words of encouragement and advice. Hearing that they can't have it all really doesn't help. Knowing, instead, that even incredibly successful women like Sandberg and Slaughter have dealt with life's inevitable curve balls is a far more powerful message.

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Debora Spar is the president of Barnard College.

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