5 Feminist Ambition Gap Arguments That Get Me Fired Up

in Business, Editor's Corner

feminist ambition gap argumentsAn article published on Forbes.com recently by Samantha Ettus called, 5 Ways To Close The “Ambition Gap” For Girls, got me pretty fired up this morning. Ettus uses Sheryl Sandberg to present the argument – quite literally – that manicures, princess clothes, and not enough outside play time are contributing to the “ambition gap” between men and women.

I left a long comment on the article, which I want to discuss further here. In order to do so, I’m going to simply present opposing views to the 5 major points Ettus makes in her article. I want to also say that the title of her article isn’t at all fitting with it; there are no “ways to close the ambition gap” presented. She only presents her issues with how families are raising their girls today.

Underlying Issue – “Ambition Gap” Involves More than Just Gender Issues

Perhaps the underlying issue is based on more than just feminism. There are socio-economic issues at play here, too. Ettus is clearly an educated white woman who seems to come from a family where that is the norm. It’s doubtful that her father worked in a factory in West Virginia, or that she was adopted into a black family in the inner city. It’s also unlikely that she was raised in a strict, religious family in the Church of God, or that she wore skirts and her hair to her knees in a braid.

The way that she approaches her article is by making blanket statements that are supposed to apply to any family raising girls anywhere, and that is ridiculous. We have to remember that not everyone is like us, and thank God for that! Sometimes we as ambitious women get to believing that being a woman trumps a number of other things that make us “us,” including our race, family heritage, spiritual beliefs, socio-economic status, education, and geographic location.

Apparently, Ettus would have us all be like Sandberg. Too bad that’s never going to happen. So what now?

Ettus’ Ambition Gap Arguments and My Opposing Views

1. Pre-School Girls Have Regular Salon Appointments

Ettus: “We live in a time when it is rare to enter a nail salon and not be seated next to a mother and her daughter – as young as three years old – getting a manicure. How then can we expect that same girl to run freely, play sports, get dirty or climb a tree?”

Peterson: I’m not sure whether Ettus has children or not, or has had the privilege or sometimes misfortune to have to do a lot of childcare or babysitting. Well, I have. A lot. And I have never seen a 3 year girl with polished nails who is already inclined to play outside NOT play outside because of her nails. Never.

If Ettus is saying in her mind, rather than in black and white, that some silly moms tell their young girls not to get dirty, than I could see her point. But she did not say that, unless, of course, she said it in her mind and not out loud.

How does Ettus feel about mom and daughter, or sisters, giving each other manicures around a table together as a family? Is that a damaging family activity for young girls? We’ll never know. She didn’t address it. She leaves out a massive group of people across America who have never seen the inside of a nail salon and probably never will. Ettus is clearly making an argument toward a specific group of people who live a specific lifestyle and calling them out for it.

2. Toys are Divided Based on Gender

Ettus: “Even Lego now feels a need to market “girl” lego which involves a Barbie like figure in a microscopic skirt. Until a few months ago, Lego was all about building. Today our daughters are building with a Lego girl who couldn’t even kneel without her underwear showing.”

Peterson: Ettus’ argument here should be with Lego. Is there any proof that girls are even playing with these kits? Are parents buying them? Why build an argument around a new toy brought to market that is so silly it will probably fail?

Unfortunately, her argument is flawed and also weak. There are many other examples that could have been brought up with regard to toys based on gender. But I won’t make her argument for her, no matter how much I want to out of sheer irritation. What I will say instead is that lots of little boys run around playing with guns and grow up to be bankers. And lots of little girls, like I was once, play “house” with their sisters and dolls, and grow up to have one child in their late 20s, work outside the home, and swear that they will never have another child again.

Toys and choices. I have yet to see a compelling argument on this one and I am still waiting.

3. Working Moms Are Apologizing

Ettus: We live in a time when working moms feel a constant need to justify their status. It is easy to forget that most of the world’s working moms need to work. In Leslie Bennett’s The Feminine Mistake, she outlines a compelling economic argument for why all women should work. (Your husband could leave you, die, get paralyzed or lose his job). We seem to have forgotten that children of working moms grow up with great role models.

Peterson: Ettus fails to make a connection here between ambition gap and working moms, so I am going to have to read between the lines and assume what she means. Perhaps Ettus is trying to say that because working moms feel guilty, somehow that leads their daughters to be less ambitious. I can’t clarify my use of “somehow” because I believe the argument is completely flawed.

Working moms who feel guilty do so probably for many reasons.

  • What is the reason that they feel guilty? Because they would rather stay home and raise their kids themselves? Why?
  • Or because they feel day care centers are dangerous and dirty? Why?
  • Or because their mom stayed home and so day care centers or babysitters seem like a luxury? Why?
  • Or perhaps because they don’t want to hire illegal immigrants? Why?

Jessika Auerbach wrote an incredibly insightful book about working moms and childcare called “And Nanny Makes Three: Mothers and Nannies Tell the Truth About Work, Love, Money, and Each Other.” You ought to read it. You would be amazed to discover the real reasons working moms feel guilty, and also the fact that so many working moms feel that work is an escape for them. Many don’t feel guilty at all.

I’m not trying to be crass, but rather to raise the level of intelligence in this conversation. Ettus’ blanket statement and vague points are irritating in that it’s almost difficult to rebut them, because they lack substance. Are you a working mom and feel guilty? If so, perhaps you can leave a comment and help Ettus flesh out her argument.

4. Girls Aspire to Be Princesses

Ettus: “We live in a time when multibillion dollar Disney marketing messages and parents themselves are encouraging our young girls towards princess adoration. Dress up is involving high heels, makeup, and aspirations of unattainable physical beauty as early as age three.”

Peterson: When have we NOT lived in a time like this? Before the Egyptians. That’s about the only time when this type of thing did not occur, and that’s because there were no real princesses to admire.

I also question Ettus’ use of the term “unattainable physical beauty.” What makes it unattainable, especially when you’re starting out as young as 3? Is it better for us to tell our young girls, “No, baby. You will certainly never be THAT pretty.”

Ettus: Princess costumes have taken over pre-school dress up areas and even teachers are calling our girls “princesses.” Parents are parading their daughters out in princess clothing without stopping to think of the ramifications.

Peterson: I would like to know what the ramifications are, and I would like Ettus to explain them. This was her article, after all. Were princess outfits available in stores, say, 60 years ago? Let’s say for argument sake that they were not (perhaps mommy had to make them back then.).

So, what Ettus is saying is that now, when more women than EVER, EVER, EVER before are attaining positions that were unthinkable for women 60 years ago, because parents are allowing their little girls to dress up as princesses and using the term “princess” which is gross to Ettus, that somehow our current princess situation is worse for girls than their situation was before, when princess clothes were hard to come by?

And what about all of the remarkable things real, actual princesses around the globe are doing for women in their countries?

5. We Teach Girls to Be Pretty and Boys to Be Strong and Smart

Ettus: We live in a time when the messages on sexist children’s clothing are mirroring our society’s messaging. As Sandberg points out, “We don’t raise our daughters to be as ambitious as our sons. From early childhood through marriage we reward men for being leaders, taking risks, being competitive. We teach women as young as four to lay back, be communal. We need our boys to be as ambitious to contribute in the home and we need our girls to be as ambitious to achieve in the workforce.”

Peterson: Whoever the “we” is, it is most certainly not Ettus’ parents or Sandberg’s parents, otherwise their argument would be negated, because they are doing well despite their parents’ insistence on being laid back and communal.

I’m not sure who is insisting these things for their girls. Maybe they are raising households of 8 kids and it gets a little unruly at times. Maybe their girls are spoiled brats (forgive me for saying that). Who knows. What I do know is that her point’s title, which is “We teach girls to be pretty and boys to be strong and smart,” has some relevance.

But little girls want to be pretty… and strong and smart, too. And sometimes they are. In addition, more women attend college than men, and increasingly, married women are beginning to earn as much or more than their husbands.


All this… despite Ettus’ insistence that princess clothes and manicures are ruining the ambition of young girls.


When will start making arguments that make sense? At some point, feminism without substance becomes noise, and that’s what people hate more than anything. You must be able to stand up and make an argument that others cannot shut down so easily.

Soapboxes are just that: soapboxes. I believe in women’s advancement as much as anyone who does, but I believe in speaking out about it intelligently.

Women are making choices for specific reasons. Let’s discover them. Let’s not go back and blame their parents. That’s what we’ve always done. That’s about the only thing we have always, always done. When will we stop?


Leave a Comment


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kylie February 24, 2012 at 11:57 pm

No comment – you nailed it. I just have to say, I don’t get my nails done often, but I have never been seated next to a mother and her young daughter. What world is this woman living in??

Matt Steffen February 24, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Well Tia, you sure laid it all down here. But then again, me don’t get to be princesses or stay at home moms without being ridiculed! Haha, great post!

LauraC February 15, 2012 at 8:44 am

Great deconstruction of Ettus’ arguments. Her points aren’t well thought through at all.

Tia Peterson February 16, 2012 at 1:27 am

@LauraC Thanks, Laura! I appreciate your comment.

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