Personal Branding: A Feminist Issue

PF Chang Marathon 2010 - Women Leaders
Image by Dru Bloomfield via Flickr
"Until women are as ambitious as men, they're not going to achieve as much." - Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook
By age of seven I had about seven Barbie dolls. They were all beautiful, although some got tangled hair if you didn't brush it right.

One day I gave the prettiest Barbie a haircut. She looked better.

Theoretically I was allowed to be just as ambitious as any boy. Had a real education, library, freedom. Read from the littlest age about smart girls like "Nancy Drew." Eventually found Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and bell hooks.

But all around me, the messages lurked. Girls are not as ambitious as boys. Should focus on their looks. Should be smart, but not talk too much. Should be manipulative rather than speak directly. Should find a "caring" job, part-time. Should love babysitting and cooking. Are there to listen, to serve, and to silently do as they are told.

My mother and my aunts responded differently to these messages. Mom found a "caring" job but focused her time at home on the kids. One aunt went predominantly with a mothering role to be realistic. Another chose career because the traditional way wasn't right for her (and wasn't right, period).

 As an adult I find that role models for ambitious women are scarce. You would think that we would be way past that. But no.
  • Religious leaders are still predominantly male, and prayerbooks still refer to God as a "He."
  • Political leaders are still mostly men. Unless they fit the mold of a venerable statesman, a bit older and revered (Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Hillary Clinton), political women are easily targeted. Especially if they are young, beautiful, and opinionated.
  • Movie representations of leaders are still mostly male. Women are now able to take charge, but they only seem to succeed if they are just as "macho" as a man (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kickass, Colombiana) - they can physically fight, shoot and kill.
Often the debate over women's rights takes place among women and becomes transformed into a kind of "mommy war" between the "stay-at-home" or "helicopter" moms and the ones who work outside the home. (Never mind the elitist nature of the debate, since most women can't afford this.)

A good example is the scathingly critical blog post career blogger Penelope Trunk wrote a about Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, who stated that women are held back by their lack of ambition.

I am a devoted fan of Trunk's work, but unfortunately what is positive about it is also a negative. That is, Penelope Trunk offers a very cold and objective few of the facts (helpful) without much appreciation for the social context in which they occur or the psychological impact of her advice (not helpful). Thus she has at various times encouraged women not to report sexual harassment and also defended domestic violence.

Trunk wrote:
"She (Sandberg) encourages women to have ambition...but very, very few women would choose to do this after they have kids….the New York Times profile of Sandberg shows her surrounded by men who are only marginally involved in raising their kids.
"Obama, for instance, is shown kissing her on the cheek. At that moment, presumably, Michelle Obama was with his kids....she has confessed to screaming at him that she didn’t sign up to be a single mother."
It is important to untangle the flaws in Trunk's logic because her blog relies on the kind of false assumptions that keep women from being ambitious in the career sense.
  1. Myth: Ambition is masculine. Fact: Ambition is neither unfeminine or feminine.
  2. Myth: Parenthood is a mother's job. Fact: Parenthood is a shared responsibility.
  3. Myth: Having help with childcare means that a mother isn't up to the task of mothering. Fact: Childcare is a huge responsibility and obtaining help is a sign of maturity.
  4. Myth: Working outside the home is a way of shirking the duties of a mother. Fact: Working outside the home is a necessity for most, can benefit a mother's health, and demonstrates fiscal responsibility.
  5. Myth: Women are equal to men and should make decisions without regard to social status. Fact: Women are still very unequal and have to take an array of factors into account that are unique to gender status.
For my part, I think about equality more than I want to. But at the same time, I can't turn away from the headlines. Numerous issues are unresolved: contraception, abortion, sexual assault, domestic violence, eating disorders, female genital mutilation, rape as a war crime, human trafficking, child marriage, and more.

When it comes to personal branding, which is really a way of formulating and reformulating your identity, it is critical to have an image in your mind of what success would look like. If you (female or male) are constantly negating that image of success, or even your right to have that image of success, how will you ever achieve anything?

Personal branding results from activity. But to successfully change your life, you first have to change your mind.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!