Seven years ago, if you were an ambitious young white woman seeking to break through the glass ceiling at work, Sheryl Sandberg was your mentor. Her bestselling 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was your guide to overcoming the type-A personality defects — perfectionism, people-pleasing, fear of criticism, self-doubt — holding you back from the C-suite.
Lean In offered a game plan for success in the corporate workplace through the lens of self-improvement. Sandberg never set out to dismantle the system, but to excel inside it. (Which she has: As the COO of Facebook, her net worth is estimated to be $1.7 billion.) If women just leaned in, could we change the system through our own self-motivated behavioral choices? Institutional barriers versus internal barriers is the “ultimate chicken-and-egg situation,” she writes. But “rather than engage in philosophical arguments over which comes first, let’s agree to wage battles on both fronts.”
Where Did My Ambition Go?
A drive to succeed has become a drive to just get by. Why workplace ambition is flickering out in this endless limbo.
By presenting gender disparities in the workplace as a war to be fought on a personal level, Sandberg allowed women to feel like they were activists whenever they advocated for themselves. It’s inspiring to feel like you’re on the right side of a good cause, like you’re a part of history in the making. Sandberg invited readers to ask themselves “How can I make the system work better for me?” instead of “Who is the system designed to work for?” She gave women permission to define feminism on their own terms, ushering in the cotton-candy pink epoch of the girlboss, c. 2013–2020.
The girlboss was the millennial embodiment of unapologetic ambition. Her greatest pleasure was success; being underestimated only motivated her to trounce her doubters. She’s Election’s Tracy Flick at 30 with nicer clothes. (“Some people say I’m an overachiever, but I think they’re just…