The Ambition Decisions with Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace
Do you ever feel like you’re facing impossible choices—tradeoffs between family and work, between money and passion, between pushing for a promotion and just wanting to take a damn nap? Well, our guests today have been there. And not only that, they’ve written about it.
Those guests are Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace. A few years ago, they were both in their early forties and feeling stuck. So they set out to learn whether other women they knew were feeling the same—and what they could do about it.
Hana and Elizabeth interviewed forty-three women they had first met more than two decades ago, when they were members of the same sorority at Northwestern University. The results of those interviews is the new book The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life, which came out in June.
Ambition is not this entity that is contained in a box labeled “career.” …We wanted to kind of liberate the word ambition from this kind of office-boss-lady idea and let it live outside of those constraints.
—Elizabeth Wallace, coauthor, The Ambition Decisions
We sat down with Hana and Elizabeth to talk about:
- How they started their project, and what they learned from the women they interviewed
- How ambition often changes over time, and how to embrace that change
- Stuff we often forget about when we’re on “rosé dates”—like figuring out whether your prospective partner supports your ambitions as much as their own
- The Ambition Decisions from Penguin Random House
- Hana on Twitter and her website
- Elizabeth on Twitter and her website
Also in this episode
Jenn talks about her upcoming maternity leave, and why it sucks to have to “sell” your employer on taking more than three months off. We chat about:
- The FML of the FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act)
- Using short-term disability insurance to get paid during maternity leave
- Ivanka Trump and Marco Rubio’s woefully inadequate proposed paid leave act
- What it’s like for Sara’s family taking parental leave in Germany
This episode of NYG is brought to you by:
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Try it free, then use code NOYOUGO to get 50% off your first paid month.
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Jenn Lukas Hey! Welcome to No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
Katel LeDû I’m Katel LeDû.
SWB And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher.
KL Do you ever feel like you’re facing impossible choices—like tradeoffs between family and work? Between money and passion? Or between pushing a promotion and just wanting to take a damn nap? Well, our guests today have been there, and, not only that, they’ve written about it. Those guests are Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace. They are the authors of The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life. It’s a new book that came out earlier this summer and we were lucky enough to snag a copy before sitting down with them.
JL Ugh! I really just loved and related to so many things in this interview. I’m constantly trying to figure out that magical balance of things as a working mom and life and work and all those things that I think all of us are trying to figure out. But adding with the mom twist the last few years, you know, there’s so many tough things to think about when you’re having a child. You’re thinking about things like, where is my baby going to sleep? Or what am I going to name my baby? Is my baby going to be healthy? All these things. And one of the things that I really wasn’t ready for the first time and maybe not even the second time around is how I was going to take maternity leave. There’s just like, you’re figuring all these things and it’s like, you know, when you’re going to like a new place but you’re like, “Oh yes, I also need a passport.” It’s like [laughs] you know you’re planning a vacation but you’re like, “Oh yeah! This one thing.” And well, what’s available? And where I work and generally a lot of places you’ve got the FMLA leave, which guarantees you three months away from your job, not paid, but just that you—they will hold the job for you. Some companies will pay you for your time off, some won’t. Where I work we have short-term disability through a separate company, so I get some percentage of my paycheck for a variation of six to eight weeks. So, six weeks if I have a vaginal birth and eight weeks if I have a C-section [laughs]. That’s always a fun formula trying to figure out [laughter]. It’s just—
KL That also just like still does not sound like anywhere near enough.
SWB It’s like so little!
JL I know. Yeah.
SWB So Jenn, how long are you going to take?
JL So I’m going to take four months. I took four months with Cooper. Again, this was something I negotiated with the people I work with. So luckily I work in a supportive and when we sat down and talked about my leave and what really made sense for me, I could not really fathom coming back in less than four months. And I am definitely in a lucky enough situation between my husband and I that we could afford for me to take off four months of unpaid, you know, that’s a tricky thing, too. So you figure that out and then you also get really nervous, right? So like you’ve cleared the money thing and you cleared the time off with your job, but you also have this guilt like, “Can I be away from work for four months?” Because at the same time you know I like working. How do I remain ambitious and take this time off to be with my family?
SWB One thing that I would imagine being really hard is that identity shift where it’s like, if you identify really strongly with your profession and your career and then suddenly that goes away—and sure, you have this amazing new thing right in front of you and it doesn’t take away from the fact that being a parent is this whole other identity opening up—but like, when something is just suddenly gone, you’re like, “Wait! I was an expert at a thing, and [laughing] where is that now?”
JL Right. And yeah now I’m like the opposite of an expert at a thing [laughter]. This is like…I’m totally in this like, “Oh where am I?” And I remember when Cooper was first born and I was home. My child is—is slash was—not a good sleeper. So there was this real lack of sleep. And I breastfed, and when I did, I’d be so tired when I woke up in the night that I would just like…you’d do anything to stay awake, you know, whether you’re like drinking tea or like eating cereal or like watching really bad television on your phone with headphones. And so when he was first born, I remember I was watching this show Unreal which is like a fictional reality show—it’s a binger.
JL Just like, I needed the most mindless but addicting TV to keep me up, right? And then I don’t know, maybe two months into my leave, I started watching like conference talks [laughing] while I breastfed because I missed it! Like I missed the—like, being in the know, and being still connected to that part of me that is my career and being like, how do I stay ambitious when I’m physically acting as food for my child?
KL Yeah. I mean I think that totally indicates that you were absolutely still an expert, that you are. That you were just trying to like [laughs] make it all work. I mean you’re sitting there multitasking like before you even have to [laughs] get back up. So.
JL You know there was parts of work that I really missed and I wouldn’t say I was necessarily like, “Yeah, I’m like super ready to go back,” but I couldn’t have gone back earlier than four months, too, because I just—I physically wasn’t ready. The lack of sleep and what pregnancy and childbirth and breastfeeding, if you choose to do it, does to your body it’s just like, to physically be in a place with people where you have to make sure, like, your shirt is buttoned [laughing] was just not fathomable to me.
KL Ugh. Gosh. Yeah. I mean that sounds really, really rough. Sara, weren’t you talking about, you have a cousin who’s pregnant right now but she’s in Europe?
SWB [Chuckles] Yeah. So my mom’s side of the family is all German. They’re in Germany. And so that means I get a lot of info from them about what things look like in their part of the world that are different than here, and some things that are very different are things like health insurance and family leave and maternity leave. So my cousin is pregnant with her second child right now, and she is a junior professor at a university in Munich. So she has a pretty great job. But what really kicks into play in Germany is a lot of state benefits that are mandated. So she’s not getting extra support because she has a good employer, she’s getting support because this is just how it works there. So what she gets that’s standard is you get this standard amount of time right around the birth that is specifically tied to being a parent who’s giving birth. So I believe it is six weeks before the baby is born and eight weeks after the baby is born, you get paid leave. But then beyond that, you go into a different kind of leave that’s more of a parental leave, and with that you get a reduced salary so it’s usually I think 65 percent of what your salary is, but there’s a cap. So the monthly cap I believe is 1,800 Euros, so it’s not as much necessarily as she would be making in a given month, it’s going to be less than that, but it’s a substantial amount of support and all of that is state mandated and required and one of the things that I was reading about after she told me about, you know, how this looked, because they treat it as parental leave that may or may not be tied to the actual like childbirth event. The parental leave you can take up to a year at once, but then you can also take different chunks of it up until the kid is like eight years old or something, where like they had this example where as long you go back to work for I think it’s at least a year in between, you can take like a year off when the baby’s born and then another year off the year that the kid is transitioning to school or something like that. So it’s really interesting the way that you can do that and also that you can really easily break that up between partners and you also have some paid leave time where both partners can be off at the same time where both partners can be off at the same time for a couple of months. So it’s interesting how much different it is and how that really shapes the way that she looks at this process and her family looks at this and the way that it sort of like maps onto her professional life. You know, she’s not totally freaked out about the money piece of it. But then there’s also just like, because it’s so normalized for women to take a year, she doesn’t feel nearly as much of that stress around like, “what are people going to think?” Or, “I need to make sure I show back up as soon as possible and get back to it.” There’s a stronger sense of like, this is what happens, you go on leave and you come back and it’s fine.
KL And you like still have a job and you don’t have to worry about that.
SWB Yeah and I think that there’s something to be said for, you know, like there’s the legal piece of it, but what the legal piece does is it sort of sets a social expectation that’s different. So that’s like it’s not personal judgement as much. It’s not perfect. Ok. Don’t get me wrong. In fact, she wants to go back sooner than a year, because as a junior professor she really is concerned about leaving her research for that long. And one challenge she has is that in Germany there are not as many childcare options for babies under a year old because the standard is usually that there’s a year off. So, you know, it’s certainly not perfect and I’m sure that other folks in Germany have other experiences that have lots of problems, but the way that the state supports it really changes also I think like a lot of the interpersonal dynamics around it.
JL It’s so amazing. I mean, you really have to sell it here. You know?
JL And there’s so many things to sell, right? Like I mean if I went to my company and I was like, “You know, I want to take four months off.” And like you can only get three. I mean what do you do? Do you fire an employee for that one extra month and then have to like spend the cost of hiring someone new, onboarding someone knew, training someone new? Whereas if you work with the employee, then you set up a supportive workplace where both I’m happier and they’re happier. So I think that for people trying to figure out how to make this work for them, you know, there are like lots of, you know, quote/unquote “selling points.” But it just sucks that we have to sell it.
SWB Well, yeah, and I think, you know, I’m really hoping this is an issue we finally make some traction on in the US. I was reading the other day that three out of four voters in the US actually want paid family leave and there is a lot of talk about making legislation to make that priority. Of course [chuckles] the most recent legislation I saw from August of this year is backed by Marco Rubio and Ivanka Trump, so I’m not [laughs] trusting that to save us. Their idea is basically that you can borrow from your future social security to pay for your paid family leave. And I’m like but wait, hold on, social security’s already screwed! Like I don’t see how this solves anything. So I don’t think that’s the answer, but I do know if we have this many people that support it and we’re starting to see a lot more discussion of it, then I’m hopeful if some other things potentially uh change politically in the next couple of years, maybe this is an issue we can finally get to the forefront on.
JL You know just the more we talk about it, though, I feel like—and the more people understand—the less weird it gets when you get back, too. Because, I mean, that’s the other thing: like you do have to go back. And I’ll tell you, going back that first day is weird [laughs]. It’s just weird [Katel laughs]. Luckily, I did this, which was like smart, is like maybe like two or three weeks before I went back, I had gone down to have lunch with some coworkers, which was good because it was sort of like an ease back in. But people are happy to see you, which is awesome but you also—you’ve got some people that don’t really understand and they’re sort of like, you know, they ask you like…they’re not saying, “Hey, how was your vacation?” But that’s sort of maybe how you’re reading it [laughs] and you’re like, “Mmm. Yeah.” And then like you’re also missing your child, and you’re also trying to like, if you’re breastfeeding, you’re trying to figure out how to pump, which is like…oh my god that’s an episode. So I don’t—[laughs, Katel laughs] I’m not going to go into it—but like you’re just trying again to balance so much, and then you’re trying to do that and then you’re like trying to not cry in the middle of a meeting because you miss your child, maybe you leaked some milk all over yourself, and you think—maybe they are, but it could be in your head—that your coworkers are judging you for being away for so long. So it’s just like… [laughs]
KL So it’s like the first day of school but like incredibly worse and you never thought that could actually be a thing [laughs].
JL Yes [laughs]. Yes, exactly.
KL Well, I would seriously talk about this all day and it really makes me want to like hear what Hana and Elizabeth had to say about just how they wrote their book and just like what they learned. Should we get to their interview?
JL Definitely. I’m so excited to hear what other people in this position have gone through and the expertise of what they have to say on it [music fades in, plays alone for five seconds, fades out].
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Interview: Hana SChank and Elizabeth Wallace
SWB Today we’re joined by not one, but two fascinating guests: Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace. They are coauthors of a new book, out earlier this summer, called The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life. That’s definitely a topic that hits pretty close to home here on the show, and I am so excited to dig into it. Hana, Elizabeth, welcome to No, You Go.
Hana Schank Thank you.
Elizabeth Wallace Thank you.
SWB So, we’re really excited to talk to you about this. We talk about things like ambition and balance all the time on the show, and I’d love to hear a little bit more from you two and how this book came to be. So from what I understand you’re more than just coauthors, you went to college together at Northwestern in the nineties and that history kind of sits at the core of the book. So can you start by telling us a bit about the book, your story, and how it all came to be?
EW Sure, this book really started with a midlife crisis, as many great things do. And we were both kind of at a point in our lives where, you know, we were in our early forties and were just feeling stuck and feeling like we weren’t where we wanted to be with our careers or with our marriages or with our parenting, and just really feeling like it was hard. So we started having conversations around this general stuck feeling and decided to reach out to some of our other friends from college, most of whom we hadn’t spoken to since 1993, to get an understanding of just where they were. Like the overarching idea was: it is hard for us, are there other people who somehow have this all figured out? Can we find this, like, mythic woman who just, it’s easy for? And we remembered that everybody we went to college with was very ambitious, and so we sort of felt like, if they couldn’t do it, then who could do it? And so probably we would find people who had it figured and we would then be able to apply those, you know, what that person knew and fix our lives.
SWB How’d that work out? [Laughter]
EW Yeah, it turns out there’s no mythic woman who has it all figured out [laughs], but it ended up being this three-year project where so we did these initial interviews and they were so fascinating and so illuminating that we wanted to keep going. And so that was how we ended up interviewing—we were both in the same sorority, and we didn’t want to interview all women, all over the world, forever. I mean actually we would like to, but we wanted to [laughs] complete the project within our lifetimes. And so we thought about how we could basically draw a circle around the project, and since we’d been in the same sorority, we thought, “Well let’s just interview everybody that we graduated with.” So we ended up interviewing 43 women from Northwestern, and while we [laughs] didn’t find the woman who had it all figured out, what we found was really interesting and turned into a book.
SWB So what did you learn from those 40-something sorority sisters that you interviewed? What did it tell you about where people’s lives had ended up?
HS One of the things that we found was, it did not fix our lives, but it did help us make a little bit better sense of what we had sort of termed midlife crises. One of the primary findings was that all of the 43 women that we spoke to fell into one of three life paths. And two of them were more traditional, previously defined paths. One was the high achiever. A traditional high achiever who is a c-suite or c-suite adjacent executive, prominent in her field, a high earner, has a lot of self-pride about her job and her accomplishments, and has set her career as one of her primary foci in her life. The second was the opt-outer, who were a number of women who had careers and jobs that they were happy with to some degree and then, after having their child or subsequent ones, opted out of the workplace and their careers, either temporarily or more long term. And then the third group was this amalgam of women that we had not seen previously identified nor named and we kind of thought they were just this hybrid group who really weren’t necessarily reaching for it all, but also had not opted out and we were like, “What is that?” And so by the time we interviewed everybody, we generated this name for this third group, which we also fell into, which were the flex-lifers. And these were women who for the most part had full-time jobs, some had scaled back to either freelance or part-time work, but basically had created flexible work situations so that they could focus on being ambitious in other parts of their lives and that they—that their ambition had not waned, they had just scaled back some of their career ambition and fleshed it out into other areas of their lives.
SWB Yeah so I think that the flex-lifers piece is pretty interesting. As I was reading the book, one of the things I kept wondering was like, “Which category am I?” And I’m actually still not sure. I think of myself as being super ambitious, but also not particularly interested in, like, being c-suite adjacent, as you said. And I’m somebody who takes sort of having some elements of flexibility very seriously, but I am exceedingly professionally ambitious. And I’m wondering if maybe some of my inability to figure out where I sit in there, or my sense that it doesn’t quite fit me, is that I don’t have kids. Did you find that almost everybody you talked with had children?
HS There were a few who did not have kids and there were, in fact, some flex-lifers who didn’t have kids. One woman in particular who chose not to have children because she wanted to focus on her career and she didn’t feel like she could be the kind of parent that she wanted to be if she was working but at the same time—and so it was like sort of pursuing this c-suite thing and then at some point said—looked at what that life looked like and said, “Actually, I don’t want to have that.” And moved to Colorado so that she could volunteer and go hiking and have a more flexible life, even though isn’t was to accommodate children, it was to accommodate, you know, interests and hobbies and just the way that she wanted her life to shake out. I will say that sometimes I’m not sure if I am a high achiever or a flex-lifer. You know I think you can be one one day and the other other days. One of the things that we found in the book is that a lot of women move across the paths over the course of their careers and sometimes I’m starting to think like maybe I move across the paths within the course of a week [laughing], because I have days where I’m very ambitious and I have a whole giant list of things that I want to do at work. But then I also am recognizing that I have certain boundaries. Like I actually kind of really—I worked from home for a long time and had a long time where I thought like, “Eh, you know, I think I really want to be in an office.” And I’m now sort of coming to terms with, actually maybe working from home is really good for me and the lifestyle that I want, and that of course limits the kind of jobs. You know, you can’t like be a CEO and work from home [laughs]. So—not that I want to be a CEO, but you can’t have that kind of job and work from home. So I think that, you know, for a lot of women there’s sort of a constant reassessing of, “actually this thing is important to me now,” and, you know, next week maybe something else will be important to me.
EW One thing that we didn’t talk about that much in the book but that is kind of emerging for me too in real life in a meta way is that—that these categories, these life paths, like sexuality and gender are more fluid than they are static. The other thing that really, really came out of the book was that ambition is not this entity that is contained in a box labeled “career,” and that you can not want to be a c-suite executive and still be very ambitious. You can still be very career ambitious. You can be ambitious in your career and in other avenues, but that really we wanted to kind of liberate the word ambition from this kind of office-boss-lady idea and let it live outside of those constraints.
JL I love this so much. We’re expecting our second child, and if you had asked me some amount five, ten years ago, I would’ve been like, “Yeah, c-suite. Definitely where I want to go,” but recently I’ve been reevaluating everything. So it’s good to hear, you know, it’s that like company of others that’s like, “This is ok that I feel this way.” And I love the idea that I can flex how I feel between, “do I want to be in this group or that group?” because it does change for me week by week too sometimes.
EW Another thing that we personally got out of this book that we hope to share with other readers is this sense of, you are not alone and that you are not the first woman to do this, you are not the first woman to question her ambition when about to have her second child and you are not the first woman to think about, “Well what’s my life going to look like three years from now?” You know? And, “can I still pursue c-suite executive-dom after I have my second kid?” And I think that still, in our forties now, I think we ask ourselves every day: can we still do this? Can we still do that? And these are questions that we really wanted to see other women answer. And so to know that you’re not alone is a huge part of why we wrote this book and a huge takeaway that we want readers to absorb.
JL So, can I still follow up on the c-suite after [laughing] I have my second child?
HS Actually one of our favorite stories is a woman who stayed at home for ten years and had never planned on staying at home but her first child was born on 9/11 and it was a really traumatic experience and she just felt like she could not leave her newborn child with anybody else. She ended up having two more children and then when the financial crisis hit, she all of a sudden felt like, “I need to be contributing to the family and also, by the way, haven’t really loved staying at home and wasn’t what I planned on doing.” She went and sat in the lobby of a bank [laughs] for weeks and became friends with the receptionist in order to get an interview and now is a very senior person at this very large bank. So it is possible. She is a dynamo, but we love that story because it shows the degree to which these things are possible and you can be constantly reevaluating, “actually, this is what I want now. Actually, this is what I want now.” There were—and actually she was not the only one who, you know, stepped back for a bit and then came back in. You know, your thirties is a time, especially if you are having children, when, you know, I personally felt a lot of inner turmoil around, like, am I not ambitious anymore? I was running a company because it gave me flexibility, but it wasn’t, like, ticking off all of the intellectual boxes that I really wanted it to. And one of the things we hope people will get from this book is, you know, I think that I and a lot of other women, there’s a lot of just guilt involved in like, “Why aren’t I killing it at work while also having a three-year-old and a newborn?” [Laughs] Which in retrospect is like, “Well, maybe because you have a three-year-old and a newborn, and you wanted to focus on that, and you’re tired, and that’s actually totally fine.” The idea that it’s, you know, if you’re not doing it now, you’re never going to do it is just ridiculous.
SWB Yeah I think, you know, we talk a lot on this show about defining goals and ambitions on our own terms and I feel like that’s such a piece of what you’re highlighting here: the way that we’ve conceived of ambition, or women’s ambition maybe especially, is too narrow. And I think that maybe speaks even to why I’m like bristling a little bit at trying to fit myself into one of those boxes, because the desire to do big stuff and to be pushing towards something is always there for me, but my desire to do that on terms somebody else has set up is exactly zero. Like my desire to go do that for some large corporation is very low. But that doesn’t make the ambition any smaller. And I…you know, I think maybe some of it is a limitation on what we mean when we say “high achieving,” or there are other ways to be high achieving than being a corporate executive.
EW Yes, uh, a hundred percent. That’s kind of a big sub-takeaway of this book. And, you know, when we came up with these three paths, we named the first one “high achiever” only as a jumping off point, I think, to ways to discuss and define and redefine ambition. And while we don’t call the other two groups “high achievers,” we really make the point that they’re trying to achieve their ambition in other ways every single day of their lives in all aspects of their lives.
HS You know a lot of the women that we labeled high achievers you know they were not all c-suite corporate people. It was much more around how they talked about their careers and how they placed their careers in the other elements of their lives. So they were women who might be recognized in their field, or who were flying around and giving talks, or seen as expert in multiple fields. We had one person who was a rabbi, we had somebody who was a screenwriter. So, absolutely, it’s not just about climbing the corporate ladder.
SWB Something that we touched on early in the interview here but didn’t quite dig into is who those women were, and also I guess importantly, who they weren’t. So something you mentioned at the start of the book is the way that the cohort of women that you interviewed does not reflect women in general. And I’m curious what this particular group of women can and can’t tell us about the broader issues that women face, and sort of like, where is it limited?
EW So the group was attractive to us because they were identifiable. We could find them all and interview them all in our lifetime. And they were women that we met in 1989 and that we graduated with in 1993, and then re-interviewed again starting in 2014. So we had the privilege of knowing them and knowing their history for over 20 years, which gave us an access and an intimacy that we would not have with random strangers. They all had the access and knowledge and information to get to a private college and they were not all wealthy, several of them were on financial aid for their tuition and their sorority dues and had work-study jobs that helped them with both of those. But, you know, what did they have in common and I think what they can tell us is, this small slice of women who graduated three months after Bill Clinton was elected and into a life where we had really come of age with second-wave feminism and we saw our mothers living this kind of binary existence around work. Like my mother was a c-suite executive and Hana’s mother, you know, for the first part of her life was a stay-at-home mom and we didn’t see a ton of in-between. So in this group we saw a lot more in-between. But so what I think that they can tell us is that ambitious, highly educated women with a ton of potential still have a lot of barriers to embracing their ambition. There are the obvious external barriers like sex discrimination and bias in lots of ways in the workplace and at home, but we also encountered with this group a lot of internal obstacles to embracing their own ambition, whether it was self-doubt and confidence, whether it was ingrained gender assumptions that they really should be doing everything in the home except controlling the finances, which many of them were happy to expect their male partners to do, or assuming that their male partners’ jobs or careers were more important than their own. And then, further to that, we also learned that there’s more than one way to be ambitious.
SWB And so I think I remember also reading that most of the women that you interviewed were white, or at least that there was not necessarily the kind of racial diversity in the group that you would see in America, and I’m curious if you’ve thought about sort of what impact that has or what kinds of issues might be particularly facing women of color that are not necessarily addressed here.
HS So they are predominantly white, although there were several women who were Asian American and several women who were first-generation Americans. One thing that we talk about in the book is that at Northwestern there’s an entire separate black Greek system. So there aren’t black women in the book. Certainly, you know, this book does not speak for all women. It’s a socioeconomic slice and a racial slice. But this is the group that we were working with and we felt like they—what they had to say was interesting enough and relevant enough to a broad enough swathe of women that it was of value.
SWB Yeah so kind of speaking also kind of on the angle of identity and who you were and weren’t talking to, something that I was really noting in the book was that a lot of the stories that you tell are about cisgender, heterosexual women who are married to men, which is a lot of women—but Elizabeth, your partner is a woman. How do you think that that has changed or not changed the kinds of challenges or tradeoffs that you’ve made or that you saw with other women that you interviewed who were not married to men?
EW We interviewed a couple of other of women who are in same-sex relationships, and some with kids and some with not, and I think the biggest difference there is the ambition balance or cap within a partnership or marriage and also the breakdown of domestic labor and emotional labor within a relationship that those are not an engrained assumption or not a foregone conclusion, like I think they were with a lot of our heterosexual subjects, because we just came together not with the same assumptions of how we were going to run a household or how we were going to support each other financially or how we were going to break down the finances or how we were going to decide who empties the dishwasher or how we were going to decide who was the more primary caregiver this year or who was the more primary caregiver next year. So I think that for me specifically, and for the other non-hetero cisgender women that we interviewed, that basically it was much more of a tabula rasa when they were approaching their ambition and their relationships and how that fleshed out. I’m of the personal mindset that everybody should marry a woman, men and women. But I know that that’s not every woman’s choice and I know that there are a lot of heterosexual women in the world and in this book and, you know, I think that what we saw in those relationships were that the women who challenged the more gender-normative ideas around ambition and marriage and goals and responsibilities within their own partnerships, that the women who kind of turned those assumptions on their faces were the ones who seemed like they were in more satisfying marriages. And there’s something to be learned from same sex relationships. I think the answer is yes.
SWB Yeah, so it sounds like what you’re saying is maybe all of us in all kinds of relationships could learn that it’s helpful to sit down and honestly talk about expectations and labor and who’s doing what, and take stock, and actually acknowledge all of the little details that go into running a house?
HW A hundred percent.
SWB Weird, right? [Laughter]
HS Um, you know, we have a couple of different stories of women who actually did do that, some of them from the beginning of their careers kind of had this breakdown where they were the more primary earner or they were not going to be the primary caregiver and some of them did not have that arrangement from the get go and decided at some point into their parenting and marriage and career journeys that they were going to say to their partners or husbands, “I’m not really liking the way the breakdown’s going right now. It’s not really working for me. So here’s what needs to change,” and one of my favorite subheads in the book is “All the Bullshit Things He Didn’t Even Know Were Things.” But this was a woman who was a high achiever and who was a partner in a law firm and who had two children with her husband. She very much wanted to set up a gender-equal co-parenting situation and working situation. And so she said to us, “You know, my husband thinks he thinks he’s so equal. He thinks he does so much and he’s like so proud of, you know, ‘Oh, I, you know, I took the kids to school this one day.’” And so she said, “So one day I sat down and made a list of all of the bullshit things I do that he doesn’t even know are things, and handed him the list and said, ‘Pick half. You start doing half of those things.’”
SWB Did he do it?
HS Yeah and yes, he did. So the point—the takeaway from there is that you may be in a marriage one day where… the point is that these relationships don’t necessarily always just naturally unfold organically over time like a magic, feminist fairytale, but that you may have to demand these things, and you may have to demand a restructuring. And sometimes that demanding, that really works. In fact, in a lot of cases, the women who did that—to some lesser degrees of I guess quote/unquote “success” or “gender equality”—but the women who articulated that this was an issue for them and that they needed to switch it up, generally for the most part saw it be switched up. And the women who didn’t articulate it and who did not make a priority did not see it switch up.
SWB That’s so interesting and it seems like that’s such a powerful thing to do but also not always an easy thing to do. So I do have one last question for you both that I would love to hear before you go. So, you spent a lot of time writing this book and you’ve synthesized a lot of what you found into this book, so beyond obviously buying the book and reading it, is there a piece of advice that you would give to someone who was at one of those pivotal moments in their career and in their life where they could double down or…not? What would you tell them?
EW One of the most important takeaways that we want people to come away from the book with is that you have agency and you are in control of these decisions. And we spoke to a lot of people who felt like, “I want to do this but I really can’t for the following reasons, you know, my life is not constructed in a way that makes this possible. My household is not constructed in a way that makes this possible. You know, I don’t feel like I’m going to be like living up to my potential in all areas if I go in this direction.” And the degree to which women really have control over these decisions. And the women who identified what they wanted to do and figured out how to put the pieces of their lives together to make that happen were able to achieve what they wanted to achieve. So that maybe sounds really obvious, but it wasn’t for a lot of women. It’s easy to see other people’s lives, right? It’s hard to see your own. So we had a number of women who, in part because we did these interviews over a three-year period, when we would first talk to them they would say… you know, we had this screenwriter who said, “I’d really like to direct, but I just don’t see how that’s possible.” And there were a couple of people who said things like that, like, “I would love to do this and I just don’t know how I could make it work.” And then when we interviewed her six months later—and she was convincing, too, about like—we were all like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, that could never work for you [laughs].” And then when we interviewed her six months later she was directing a big-budget Hollywood movie. So she figured out how to make it work, even though we had all agreed it was not possible. So the idea that you can achieve the things that you want, it just maybe requires some logistical thinking. And that the way that you need to organize your life to achieve whatever that is is not a permanent thing. She had a crazy period of time for her life while this movie was shooting, and then she went back to having the kind of lifestyle that she’d had previously. The other big takeaway I think for parents from this is around non-negotiables. One of the things we talk about in the book is identifying the things that you feel like you must do or you internally feel like you are lacking as a parent and this is not external, this is that different women have different things that they feel like are the thing that makes them a parent. And figuring out what those are, and then figuring out how to get rid of, delegate, pay somebody, just not do the other pieces. And that the women who did that were able to direct their ambition in ways that were much more meaningful to them. They could spend meaningful time with their children. They could—they had more time for focusing on work. They had more time to, you know, compete in trail running marathons or whatever it was that they wanted to do with that time.
HS Also, if you do consider yourself ambitious in whatever way you see that ambition flowing, and you are somebody who wants to be life-partnered or married, that you should really think about either, you know, if you are at a point where you’re thinking about partnering or you already are partnered, is that we found for these women that who they were partnered with and how that person felt about their partner’s ambition was crucial to how successful that woman was going to be and the things that she pursued. And that that’s more important than a lot of people think when they are getting together with somebody because, you know, you don’t necessarily think when you’re meeting somebody and like having rosé dates, “How is this person going to view my career or my ambition or what’s important to me after we’ve been together for ten or twelve years and after we have children? And is this person going to assume that his or her career is equal to mine, or are they going to inherently assume that theirs is higher to mine? And are they going to assume that they will be the higher earner, or are they going to be wanting me to be the higher earner? Will they support that if that’s something that I want or that’s something that organically happens?” All this is to say that when it comes to partner selection, if you are an ambitious woman, that you would do best by yourself by thinking about how your partner will support that ambition and logistically what that will look like and if you have children will you, you know… this was something that we saw time and again, that the woman in these relationships was the one who automatically was going to be the one who had to leave work if one of her kids threw up at school, or if there was a half-day at school—that she was automatically going to be the one to go pickup. You know I think that may be something that’s changing a lot in younger generations, but with some people it’s not. And so thinking about and talking through what your partner’s ambitions are vis a vis what yours are, and how they are going to flourish together. Because partners’ ambitions are not…they don’t live in a vacuum within a marriage.
SWB So make sure you’re questioning the defaults and actually talking about it.
EW Yeah and marry or partner with somebody who thinks your ambition is as important as theirs is. If it is important to you [laughter].
JL Hurray to that.
SWB Well, with that, I think we are about out of time, so everybody pick up The Ambition Decisions. I think that you’re going to really like a lot of what you hear about how you can start thinking a little bit differently about your own goals and your own life [music fades in, plays alone for five seconds, fades out].
SWB: Hey y’all, it’s time for career chat—brought to you by Shopify. This week, we’ve got Krystle Olson from the research team sharing her tips for encouraging diversity in your applicant pool.
Krystle Olson: Thanks! So, I wanted to highlight some of the best ways to support accessibility when creating job postings. First, limit the job requirements to only what’s truly necessary. People will often not apply if they feel they can’t fulfill 100 percent of job requirements. Experience comes in many forms, so if you’re a company that values potential and supports on-the-job learning, make that known. Second, write job postings with the person in mind, and help them see themselves in the role. This can be your first impression with candidates, so don’t squander it! The bottom line is, if more companies treat candidates as humans, rather than just lines on a CV, we’ll all be better off.
SWB: This stuff is SO important. So if you’re posting a job, listen up. And if you want to work somewhere that’s already thinking about this kind of thing, then you are in luck, because Shopify is hiring—maybe for a role you’d be great at. Visit Shopify.com/careers to learn more [music fades in, plays alone for four seconds, fades out].
SWB All right, it is time for our last segment of the show, and maybe our favorite segment! It is the Fuck Yeah of the Week, where we celebrate something that just made us say, “Fuck yeah.” Uh Katel, do you have something for us?
KL I do, and you know this is my favorite part—one of my favorite parts. But, I don’t know, I was just thinking how busy I’ve been this summer, and earlier this week I’d gotten home from a trip, and I was watering the twenty-some-odd plants we have in our house. Some may say that’s too many; I disagree. But it usually takes me like ten minutes or so, because there’s a bunch and they’re, you know, scattered all over. And I was halfway through when I realized that this is like one of the few things I do, at least once a week, that I focus on a hundred percent. It’s almost become meditative, because I can’t really multitask while I’m doing it, and I kind of love that about it, because for those ten minutes or so, it’s all I need to focus on, and I’m doing kind of like this extremely tangible, satisfying task. I don’t know, it’s just this, like, little routine I realized that I have and I love that it just lets me kind of like turn my mind off and let it be.
SWB Fuck yeah! Little routines are great. I feel like that even when I kind of set away work for the day and I’ll start making dinner, and it’s like I find something that’s really nice about pulling out a bunch of vegetables and I’m washing and cleaning and chopping things. I was peeling carrots yesterday, and I mean like on one level I fucking hate peeling carrots, but on another level there’s something about it that I find very kind of meditative, like you said, right? Because it’s just like this simple little thing, I can’t really multitask while doing it, it creates a division between the work part of the day and the evening, and it has to do with like nourishing myself and thinking about, you know, what I’m going to be eating, which I’m always excited to do. And so that’s a little routine I super cherish.
JL These sound so nice. And I mean as you both know my life is a little bit less routine-y these days, but recently I’ve been going through the bedtime routine. So like they really make a huge emphasis on creating a routine to help your child fall asleep and the one we’re currently going through now is, read Coop a story and then put him in his crib, and then I turn out the light and I sit in like a chair nearby until he falls asleep. And, you know, again, you all know me, I’m not going to meditate for that 20 minutes. Not my jam. But what I recently started doing is bringing my headphones in with me and listening to an audiobook, and it’s become so lovely that I look forward to that time.
KL I love that. And I totally agree. I feel like I don’t necessarily need to sit, you know, in the lotus position for an hour every day. The thing that I do where maybe I take a walk to the subway and like watering plants I’m just letting my mind wander and sort of letting myself zone out a little bit and I just—I really love that. So fuck yeah to little routines.
SWB Fuck yeah!
JL Fuck yeah!
SWB Well that’s it for this week’s episode of No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace for joining us today.
JL If you like what you’ve been hearing, please rate us on Apple Podcasts and subscribe there or anywhere where you listen to your favorite shows. Your support helps other folks find us and we. Love. That. We’ll be back next week with another great guest [music fades in, plays alone for 30 seconds, fades out to end].