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The Black Swan Stereotype: Female Ambition Means Sacrifice

Apparently, Entry-Level Rebel isn't the only blog using Oscar-nominated films to reflect on the conditions for female leaders in the contemporary business world. Over on the HBR blogs, Sylvia Ann Hewlett is using the character of Nina from The Black Swan (played by Natalie Portman who won a statuette last night for the role) to look into how much ambitious women must sacrifice to reach the pinnacle of their careers.

For those who haven't seen the film, Portman plays Nina, a highly strung and extremely ambitious ballet dancer who drives herself to madness and physical harm to achieve greatness. Clearly, she's an extreme character, but Hewlett says that Nina actually represents a fairly broadly held view of female ambition:

While such a character makes for riveting drama, it only serves to entrench a stereotype that women in the workforce battle mightily to overturn.
This stereotype -- one that shows ambition as a power-hungry need -- implies that the pursuit of mastery and recognition is likely to cost more than it can possibly deliver. Characters like Nina imply that ambition will cost a woman all her meaningful relationships; it will push her to the breaking point; it will twist her priorities, pervert her desires, and betray her dreams.
Sadly, too many women still subscribe to this stereotype -- hence their ambivalence about aiming for the top of their profession.
Hewlett goes on to cite statistics about the falling percentage of women who call themselves "highly ambitious" as they reach their child-bearing years (47 percent under age 30, only 32 percent over 40). She argues that women feel they must sacrifice their happiness and family life to reach the top, but concludes this is in fact untrue, as "more and more companies are implementing programs enabling women to claim and sustain their professional ambitions without sacrificing their personal ones."

Hewlett may feel the choice between private fulfillment and career ambition is a false one, but there's evidence that a lot of smart, ambitious women still feel torn. Just today author Alexandra Levit penned a post entitled "Confidence Takes Men Further" in which she vows -- in a toned-down echo of Nina -- to fight her natural personality, in this case towards modesty and soliciting feedback, to compete in a world where,

Most bestselling nonfiction authors are men. The most successful online personalities are men. The people who have made it the biggest in the motivational speaking field? Yup, men again.
Whilst I totally admire Levit's determination, I think her post argues against Hewlett's assertion that women no longer feel the need to twist themselves in order to gain some types of success. After all, go and try to find a man vowing to tone down his instinct for self-promotion in order to allow less flamboyant characters to be heard. It stands to reason that Nina-esque mental (and sometimes physical) contortions to reach the top take a toll. Take this much discussed book arguing that American women's drive for career success is making them miserable while relatively relaxed Dutch women are happier as an example.

Do you find Hewlett's argument against the Nina stereotype of painful sacrifice necessarily underlying female success convincing, or do you think most highly ambitious women still have to give up a great deal more than men in their careers?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user xojoelleexo, CC 2.0)
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