Have We Been Thinking About Ambition All Wrong?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay charts a new alternative for work life (beyond the girlboss or tradwife)


Samhita Mukhopadhyay has spent her career doing two things brilliantly: being a serious boss (she helped run the newsroom at Mic and served as the executive editor for Teen Vogue), and being a serious feminist (she was a founding editor at the late-’00s site Feministing). Those dual experiences—sometimes, but not always aligned—make her the perfect person to answer the question: What does, and what should, the future look like for women in the workplace? And can you be a boss and a feminist at the same time?

Those aren’t simple questions; work, after all, is a place with its own needs, bottom line, and occasional drudgery. (There’s that old expression: If work were that pleasant, the rich would keep it for themselves.) I’ve written and talked about the subject of women and work plenty, and I still don’t have answers.

But Samhita’s new book, The Myth of Making It: A Workplace Reckoning, does. Full disclosure, Samhita is a friend and colleague: We both worked at the media company Condé Nast, although we didn’t know each other there; now, we work together at the ever-so-slightly-less-glossy outlet you’re reading right now. (We think of it as The Devil Wears Sweatpants.)  

She began writing this book during the pandemic, which was—you might remember?—a stressful time for working women. We started there.

Cindi Leive: When you started to write this book, there was a lot of gleeful dancing on the grave of the girlboss. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which had been a bible of early ’10s feminism, suddenly seemed very outdated—women were realizing that if you’re underpaid, overworked, and don’t have child care, no amount of leaning in was going to fix that. But you also didn’t want to chuck the whole idea of ambition. What was the problem you were trying to solve?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay: Woman after woman in my life who were extremely ambitious in their careers were starting to question that ambition because they weren’t living the life that they thought they were going to live. They weren’t finding the happiness or the meaning or the purpose, and they were struggling in their personal lives.

But it felt very easy [for society] to say, “Women’s ambition is dead. We should have never let you have that education and have that career. Because look what it’s done to you now. You’re burned out; you’re tired; you’re a bad mother.”

It felt like there was no space for us to be like, I’m actually in between all of these narratives. Like, I’m not going to become a tradwife, but the way we’ve been taught about ambition—pull yourself up by your bootstraps, work as hard as possible, girlboss your way to the top—that narrative is also not working for me. I’m going to do something more impactful. And I wanted to explore that.

You just referred to the kind of other side of the spectrum from the girlboss—the tradwife. Can you define that term?

There has been a trend of [female] influencers declaring that they are no longer going to pursue career ambitions and they’re more focused on their family and their husbands. It’s a trend that’s hard to actually quantify—it gets a lot of press coverage because anything that’s critical of women’s ambition gets a lot of press coverage. All the women in my life have to work! But I think we are fascinated with the idea of putting women back in their place.

That’s where this question of limited narratives comes in, because wanting a soft life or embracing more balance in your life should not come at the cost of women’s progress. A happy life with dignity should not come at the cost of you being able to pay your bills, right? We should be able to do all of that. 

But work has become so inhumane, and we conflate a rejection of capitalist hustle culture with rejecting the progress of feminism. The problem isn’t that women are ambitious and they want to work. The problem is that we have a society and workplaces that can’t support [those ambitions]. Especially for mothers.

You said it, sis. (Via Getty)

One of my favorite lines in the book is when you say that girlboss culture sold the idea that capitalism and feminism could have a totally functional baby. Do you see those things as totally at odds? Is there no place in feminism for trailblazers like Ursula Burns [the former CEO of Xerox] or Indra Nooyi [of Pepsi]—or even what you were doing at Teen Vogue?

I think the connection is not as…fluid as we had hoped. [laughs] Ursula Burns and Indra Nooyi, while they are groundbreaking, they are exceptions, right? They’re often peddled to us as “You could do this, too!” And the reality is, most of us actually can’t do that. It’s impossible for one person to fix [the system]. It’s collective action that’s going to bring change. It’s not necessarily that having women in these roles isn’t valuable. I just don’t think it’s been as successful as it’s been sold to us.

You say that you don’t have all the answers—you write that “this is not a how-to book.” But I’m going to push you for a little advice anyway. What’s the best way to be a better—and maybe more feminist—boss? You’re really good at it.

One of the things that I always think about is: What does it look like to have my ambition be connected to the ambitions of the people that work for me? So that I am a unit with them, and that no matter how I move forward in the workplace, my moving forward is connected to their moving forward. The research is showing that women are actually better at doing that, too: They’re better at creating inclusive work environments where people feel seen. So what does it look like to shift the focus and say I will do everything I can to support my employees? Within reason, I mean; at the end of the day, we all have to get our jobs done. In some environments, profit’s gonna matter, productivity is going to matter. But I do think that as managers we can say to our employees, I will always advocate for the biggest raise for you. I will always advocate for you to get the training that you want. And for you to be able to take care of your family and to take care of yourself. 

You also say that bosses need to be better about admitting mistakes. You tell a really vivid story in the book about being called the wrong name in a past role…

I was sitting in a high-level meeting and the person leading the meeting called me by the wrong name—the name of another South Asian executive at the company. It was a complicated moment: Technically, I wasn’t supposed to be in that meeting; I was there in lieu of my boss. The other executive was supposed to be in the meeting, and she was not there, so it was the perfect storm for a mix-up. In the moment I was like, that couldn’t possibly have just happened. But the person next to me was like, “No, that happened.” 

The way you write about it, it sounds as if it was upsetting to be called the wrong name. But equally upsetting was the way it was handled, where nobody actually admitted to having done what they had done.

I did feel upset that it had happened. I already felt so uncomfortable in that room around all of these senior people. And that kind of confirmed for me that I really shouldn’t be there. But—let people make mistakes, right? I use the wrong pronouns sometimes; things like that happen. I don’t think that it means that the person [making the mistake] is vicious or angry or inherently racist. 

But everybody made a big deal about it, and I noticed that the focus was much more on this mistake rather than all of the forces that create a mistake like that: lack of representation for women of color in leadership roles, or lack of effective diversity and inclusion programs that actually address unconscious bias. There’s research on this: They call it the same-race effect or same-race bias; when you have not been exposed to a variety of people in another race, you tend to confuse them for each other. There’s also a power dynamic here: People in management positions tend to do it more often than employees, because employees have to be very aware of the identity of the people that are managing them. And most managers are predominantly white, so you can see how that plays out. It was the conflation of all of those things in that moment. But we focus so much on the question of, “Oh, is that person racist or not racist?” And then that becomes the question, rather than how we create a situation where people of color can work with dignity.

So if someone does make a mistake like that, what is a better way of trying to deal with it?

First and foremost, by acknowledging the mistake and saying, “I am so sorry. I’m so embarrassed. Of course I know who you are. My mistake.” If you realize in the moment, do it in the moment. I’ve had to do that: “I’m sorry, I know that’s not your gender pronoun, let me do that again.” It’s a little awkward, but it goes a long way toward making the person feel seen and heard. And if you don’t realize in the moment, admit that it happened and that you are committing to do better next time. I don’t think people realize how far those apologies actually go! I really felt like I did something wrong, like, Oh my God, how dare I be here, and be Indian! So an apology helps.

There is this huge opportunity right now for leaders to really take seriously the question of how to make everybody feel included or confident or empowered at work. If you’re truly invested in diversity and inclusion, you can get to know every single person that works for you. And treat everyone with the recognition of: We know who you are, and we know what brings you here.

A book jacket (and wisdom) for the ages. (Via Random House)

You’re talking about the importance of a feeling of belonging at work. And one of the most moving stories in the book is when you get a bad performance review and you go out to sob on a bench outside. You’re in your 30s and you feel ashamed of being so upset, and you later realize that it’s because the review taps into this preexisting feeling that maybe you never belonged in that workplace to begin with. Is belonging a fundamental thing for us to think about as we redefine ambition?

Absolutely. The statistics around how lonely people feel at work are quite devastating, right? It’s especially true for women and people of color, who often feel very alienated in the workplace. When we’re taught that we don’t belong somewhere, it’s very hard to do your best work or to even show up. In my own case, my own struggles in early schooling—and bad grades—really impacted what I thought was possible for myself. And so I always felt like I was faking it, like I actually didn’t deserve [success]. I think that a lot of people struggle with that at work. And I think that working from home has caused more alienation, especially for young women, because so much of what I learned at work was being mentored by older women. And that piece is really missing right now: the feeling that someone’s invested in your career and working to help you feel included. That’s one reason people are quiet-quitting; they’re not feeling like they’re part of something bigger.

I want to ask you how all this ties into social change. A fascinating study just came out showing that those “lean In” messages can actually lower women’s motivation to protest gender inequalities at work. Did that surprise you?

It did! I could see that individual-style “workplace feminism” has not been effective, but we still need it. I mean, I’m not going to stop telling young women that they should ask for more money!…But what I found so interesting is the finding that when you internalize the idea that your success is dependent on your behavior alone, that disconnects you from a broader story about gender justice. That research is a missing link: We have isolated women with this attitude of “to have it all, you have to do it all.” And then that internalization has blinded us to the way structural realities are impacting us.

The alternative to what we’ve been doing is that we actually come together and rise up—rise up together.