Ambitious While Female (and Economist)

Why I am Cautiously Optimistic about the State of Women in Economics

Ambitious – as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary – is having a desire to be successful, powerful, or famous; having a desire to achieve a particular goal. Female is defined as a woman or girl; an individual of the sex that is typically capable of bearing young or producing eggs; or, my favorite, a pistillate plant.  

A quick Google search for ambitious female retrieves articles with titles like “Who’s Afraid of Ambitious Women?” [The Atlantic], “Do Women Lack Ambition?” [Harvard Business Review], “Five Things That Happen to You When You’re an Ambitious Woman” [Career Girl Daily], “Ambition: Why Is It Still a Dirty Word for Women?” [The Irish Times], and “Why Ambition Isn’t a Dirty Word for Women” [Forbes]

Do another Google search for ambitious male and you find this: “How to Date Ambitious Men” [How to Get the Guy Blog], “18 Rules for Ambitious Young Men in 2018” [some unknown blogger], “The Reality of Dating an Ambitious Man” [some other unknown blog], “What an Ambitious Man Seeks in a Woman” [Critical Spectator], and, perhaps the closest to my heart, “Why Ambitious Men are Celebrated and Ambitious Women Are Criticized” [The Washington Post].

While you are left distilling the grossness washing over your brain right now, let’s ponder what this all means for the humans who are, in fact, ambitious while female. For me it means I have to tread lightly at work (which I often forget to do). I need to please those above, next to, and below me to get my mission accomplished. I need to cooperate, bring others along with me, let others shine. If I do not do this, I am guaranteed to hear about it – either through direct or passive-aggressive actions meant to redirect me for the audacity to move towards goal ‘x’ without a colleague’s buy in or through a series of complaints leveled against me to my leaders and supervisors. 

This has been true in every job I have had when I exude ambition. Luckily, in every job I have also had amazing champions, both male and female, who have encouraged and believed in me. They have made all the difference. There is no amount of amplification that can equalize the deeply meaningful role they have played in my career. Still, they can’t shield me entirely.

Last year I took a sabbatical from work to pursue an exciting research opportunity. On a trip back home I visited the office and ran into a colleague who said he had heard I was on leave and asked how the internship was going. I was 44 years old; my title - principal economist/senior advisor for evaluations and experiments. I had been working as a Ph.D. research economist in the federal government for a decade, had spent three years before my Ph.D. program working as a planning analyst and three years before that in a Masters degree program.

I smiled gently, as I was expected to do, and patiently explained that I was not at an internship but rather on sabbatical to pursue my own cutting-edge research on poverty, inequality, and full employment. Was the assumption that I could actually be off doing an internship due to my youthful appearance, my gender, or both? Should I have been flattered or offended? Who knows. But I can say, without a doubt, this was just one of many examples where I have had to deal with subtle unconscious assumptions made towards me that minimized my expertise, ability, and experience.

There was also the time when I asked a junior-to-me male staffer to schedule future meetings for our new work group. In less than 24 hours his supervisor (also male) was at my desk, wanting to clarify that it was my job to schedule the meetings, not his staff. The audacity, but also the awe I felt for that staffer. The bold assumption that scheduling group meetings was so far out of his work duties that I, his more senior (female) leader of the group should do it. How I wished I had his balls, and that more women in the workplace did too! Especially at an age when, to save money, the majority of administrative assistant positions have been eliminated. Who is left to schedule the meetings and take notes? Professional women (and some men) with advanced degrees, big brains, and burning talent now spend a disproportionate portion of their workday in administrative tasks that could easily be completed by staff in lower grades. It is a poor use of resources and, instead of agencies saving money, it heavily impedes the productivity of our best talent.

Looking forward

Despite the dismal start to this essay, it may come as a surprise that I am so incredibly hopeful for women in economics these days. Let me tell you why. We are breaking through. Persisting even with the darkest of odds as we expose our ambition.

Female economists are on the move. We are tired of society’s crap. We hear the complaints about our ambition, and we have decided not to give two hoots. I see this courageous attitude in my fellow female colleagues, and I am filled with hope, resolution, and joy. I see them achieving at all odds. I believe that women in economics have found a new groove. A groove in which we will no longer tolerate society’s expectations of us. It has not been easy, but we are collectively supporting each other. We are talking; sharing our stories. There is a collective power in the sharing of stories, we are grabbing onto this collective power with bare knuckles, gripping tightly, and not letting go. We will persist, and we will thrive.

I recently turned 45. This is my breakout year. I am not sure if it is pandemic induced or otherwise, but I am tired of absorbing as truth other people’s perceptions of how I should behave and who I should be professionally. I do good work. I am intelligent. I want the economists in the federal government and elsewhere to be the best they can be, to follow their passions and do good work - to use their competitive advantage to help solve the difficult, complex social problems our society is facing. If someone wants to criticize the quality of my work or my lack of timely deliverables, by all means go ahead. But the criticism and slights directed at my ambition, youthful appearance, and gender is inappropriate at best and devastatingly depressing at worst

This 45-year-old has started standing up for herself in unexpected ways. When I see someone making false accusations that could impact my career, I stand up and correct the misinformation. The pre-45 me would cringe, apologize, and try to move on. When I now see someone passively-aggressively engaging with me at work, I coarse-correct by setting up even clearer boundaries instead of just putting up with the behavior. And, perhaps the most relevant, I have started sharing more with those around me – anticipating others angst towards me if my work impedes on what they are doing. This last one is the hardest since I usually prefer to solve problems on my own. 

If you are ambitious while female and wondering how to make it through this crazy maze of a career in economics, a field that has historically been viewed at its best as not interested in engaging women and, at its worst, as hostile towards women, here are some tips:

1.     Get a crew! There is nothing better I have done for myself post-PhD than to get a crew of likeminded women whom I meet with on a regular basis. Sometimes we talk self, sometimes family, sometimes work. And while the general banter is always welcome, I have found this crew to be instrumental in talking through unexpected issues and events in my work life as they unfold. This crew keeps me sane and brings me joy. Get yourself one!

2.     Follow other ambitious-while-female economists. Don’t know where to start? Here are some examples of female economist who, regardless of the odds, persist in paving their own way in the profession and making us all better for it along the way: Stephanie Aaronson, Judy Chevalier, Lisa Cook, Mary Daly, Jennifer Doleac, Nancy Folbre, Claudia Goldin, Sandile Hlatshwayo, Diane Lim, Shelly Lundberg, Claudia Sahm, Dani Sandler, Diane Swonk, Abbie Wozniak, and many, many others. 

3.     Find mentors. You need one male and one female mentor for each year of your post-PhD career. I am not kidding. And, easiest of all, you do not need a formal program to make this happen. Approach someone whose job or work you admire and just ask. Make it as easy on them as possible to mentor you and provide clear boundaries around the time and length of the commitment. Trust me, you won’t be sorry if you do this!

4.     Believe in yourself. Always.

5.     Train the next generation to be better. If you land an academic job or teach as an adjunct, you have a real gift. The ability to influence the next generation of economists. Do not squander your chance to make real difference and influence the expectations and aspirations of those who will come next!

If you have read this far, thank you. I hope you hear the excitement and energy in my voice for women in the field of economics and my joy that we will persist regardless of society’s expectations on us. Keep on being you, call out inappropriate behavior wherever you find it, get yourself a crew that believes in you, and never, ever lose your ambition!