On a balmy midsummer eve, I’m at a gathering in an elegant Manhattan apartment with spectacular river views. I’m talking to a male college friend whom I’ve known for enough years that you’d need to count almost all our fingers and toes to reach the number. Another guest comes over who knows both of us from our early professional careers:me as a lawyer, my friend as a hotshot investment banker. There’s nothing flashy about this woman; she wears no make-up, a simple dress with no jewelry, a no-nonsense haircut, and a look-you-in-the-eye gaze.
My college friend asks her if she’s still working at his former, venerable investment bank—he genuinely doesn’t seem to know—and she smiles and says, “Yeah, I’m still there.” Which makes me want to explode because SHE RUNS THE PLACE. So I tell my college friend, and he asks her if it’s true, and she shrugs and admits it.
Why didn’t she trumpet her staggering accomplishment or, at least, quietly claim it? It might be because she’s a genuinely modest person, but at least part of her modesty comes from societal pressure. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg and co-author Nell Scovell (aka my sister) describe how many women find it socially unacceptable to call attention to their success. It’s part of a larger problem called the “ambition gap,” which starts with fewer women striving for leadership roles—they often underestimate their own abilities and are averse to risk—and continues with those who become leaders but feel they have to understate their accomplishments.
Sandberg, the COO at Facebook, confesses in her book that when she was invited to the 2005 Most Powerful Women Summit, she felt uncomfortable applying the word “powerful” to herself. She could think of other women as powerful but adds, “I still shake my head in denial when it is applied to me.” Why did she shrink from using the adjective? “The nagging voice in the back of my head reminds me, as it did in business school, ‘Don’t flaunt your success, or even let people know about your success. If you do, people won’t like you,’” she explains.
Maybe it’s hard to admit to adjectives like “powerful,” which are arguably subjective, but shouldn’t earned titles be indisputable? Surprisingly, even those can be a stumbling block, as I discovered at the soup kitchen where I work every Friday. Fifty-two weeks a year, we churn out a hot lunch for 250 guests. Most of the staff are volunteers—a core group of regulars and many one-timers—but there’s a handful of paid professionals who do the really hard work. Helming the cookstaff is a tiny émigré from Brazil named Ana. With her dark hair pulled back into a tight ponytail and a big white apron engulfing her petite frame, Ana rules the industrial kitchen with a steady hand. Her sous chef is affable Robert, who likes to address his boss as “chef.”
It’s part of a larger problem called the “ambition gap,” which starts with fewer women striving for leadership roles—they often underestimate their own abilities and are averse to risk—and continues with those who become leaders but feel they have to understate their accomplishments.
Except that Ana refuses to answer to the title. Usually she just ignores Robert until he calls her by her name, but recently she voiced a complaint, telling him she didn’t like being called “chef.” Robert shrugged, but I was puzzled. I asked Ana why she objected to the title, and she explained that it that was too lofty for someone who’d never had formal training or worked in a restaurant. She brought up the celebrity cook Rocco DiSpirito, who had recently visited our kitchen, saying emphatically, “Now he’s a real chef.”
So I asked Ana, “Who plans each week’s meal here? Who oversees the food order each week? Who comes in early and organizes all the stations? Who supervises and participates in the cooking of all the meals? Who gets the food out of the kitchen and onto the tables?” All the questions had the same obvious answer: She did. Then I asked, “What does a ‘real’ chef do that you don’t?”
She had to smile. “I guess I am a chef.”
It reminded me of an old joke that takes place in a smaller kitchen. An 8-year-old girl has an inexplicable fear of her mother’s signature dish, kreplach (Jewish dumplings). Whenever the child spies kreplach in a bowl of soup, she screams. The resourceful mother decides to overcome her daughter’s irrationality by showing her, step-by-step, that there’s nothing scary about the foodstuff.
Women need to learn to be comfortable—no screaming with terror allowed—with claiming and naming their achievements.
In her big bowl, the mother mixes flour, salt, eggs, and water. “See, dear, this is how we make dough. Isn’t it nice?” The child nods. Then the mother rolls out the dough paper-thin and cuts it into two-inch squares. “This is how we prepare the wrappers, sweetie. Isn’t it nice?” The child nods. Next the mother mixes together chopped meat and onions and parsley. “And this is how we make the filling, darling. Isn’t it nice?” More nods. The mother takes a scoop of the filling, places it in the square, folds the square in half on the diagonal to create a triangle, and begins to crimp the edges. The child’s eyes grow large. The mother holds out the finished dumpling, “Isn’t it nice?” The child screams in terror, “Aaaa, kreplach!”
A chef is a chef, even if she doesn’t claim the title. And a woman is powerful, even if she eschews the adjective. Women need to learn to be comfortable—no screaming with terror allowed—with claiming and naming their achievements.