Reshma Saujani on Why You Should Stop "Waiting in Line" and Start Being Ambitious and Aggressive at Work

Forget movie night — throw a “failure party” instead. Reshma Saujani, a former New York City Deputy Public Advocate and Girls Who Code founder, says to gather your “friends, colleagues, neighbors, people you admire to share the stories of their own mistakes” so women get the message that failure isn’t such a bad thing. Kitschy? Maybe — but Saujani may be on to something here. Saujani is the author of a new book, Women Who Don’t Wait In Line: Break the Mold, Lead the Way (New Harvest), which stresses one overarching message: Stop thinking you’ll eventually get rewarded for doing what’s asked of you… and go get it yourself, even if you fail hard doing it.

Saujani says that women are stuck in a societal cycle of “waiting in line” — doing all the right things and hanging on, hoping for that promotion, all the while behaving as men expect us to. But Saujani argues that it’s getting us nowhere, and women need to embrace our inner ambition and inherent fear of failure, even if we’re perceived as aggressive. She’s asking for a systemic change from the ground up, which involves reforming the way parents raise their daughters, how women act in the workplace, and augmenting the psychology of men alongside whom we work. It’s a tall order — and a fundamentally different one than our social cues feed us daily — but Saujani says this sisterhood of advocacy is the only way for things to progress.

I spoke to Saujani about some of the changes for which she advocates, their practical implications, and the bigger impacts she thinks getting out of line can have.

BUSTLE: One thing that struck me is this dissonance between the idea of applying for something for which you’re not qualified, and the Millennial idea of entitlement. A lot of the criticism about Millennials right now is that they’re acting as if they’re entitled to skip the line, and be in positions for which they haven’t paid dues, and your book is advocating that women should be putting their names in the ring for things that are necessarily many rungs up the ladder. How do you reconcile these ideas?

RESHMA SAUJANI: We need to have a really different playbook, and I think that means throwing your name in the ring for positions for which you’re not qualified and trying to make those double career jumps and doing the things that quite frankly boys and men have been doing forever. Our generation thought that if we work really hard and we play by the rules and do everything right, people will just recognize our skillset and our ability and we’ll just get put into these positions. But that hasn’t happened, so I think we need to try something new, and I think that something that’s really amazing about Millennials is they do utilize the mantra “fake it until you make it.” They do apply for jobs they’re not qualified for, and they do take more risks. They do embrace failure, and that’s something we need to encourage even more.

How do you deal with the outside stigma of people then saying, These guys are acting like they’re totally entitled?

Who cares about that stigma? It’s the whole reason why this whole time women have been hiding their ambition to kind of play by the rules and act like they don’t want it so bad — and then they get passed over for opportunities because they don’t ask. I think that we have to stop worrying about this perceived stigma. It’s so important for us as women who have the capacity to put young women into leadership roles to not buy into that.

A lot of what you’re advocating for is dependent on how the outside world is going to perceive people, too. What has to change in the psychology of the rest of society for women to not be perceived as ‘pushy’ or as ‘entitled’ or as ‘aggressive’?

It starts with us. Something that’s been happening over the past 10 years is that there are more women in college, more women in the workplace — there are 20 million women who make hiring decisions. There are more women in media. There are more women in Hollywood that are creating these caricatures. We have the power to change these perceptions, and if we include our male allies, it’s absolutely possible.  

This also involves changing how we’re raising women. It’s going to take some time, I think, for people to transition for how they contextualize women as go-getters, so in the interim, how does the next generation make sure they’re not being perceived as the 'aggressive' generation?

I would stop worrying about us being perceived as ‘aggressive’, and just really embrace it. Culturally speaking, if we just keep trying act like the women that the men want us to act like, we’re not going to get ahead. If we embrace our ambitious, aggressive selves, that helps to change perception, because you have more women who are acting in a certain way… we’re not asking women to behave any differently than men have been behaving their entire lives. I’m asking women to stop behaving in a way where we think we’re going to get rewarded, because we’re not.

So you don’t really think there has to be any changeover period — everything can kind of snap and turn over?

Yes, especially now. I think of the role technology plays and the fact that you have more people graduating from high school, college, business school who want to be entrepreneurs. Part of being an entrepreneur means embracing risk and failure. If we think we have to be these over-prepared women who have to do everything right, we’re never going to take risks and fail, and we’re never going to be able to operate in this society that is being formed right now.

It’s the same thing I feel with my girls in Girls Who Code. Many people don’t opt into computer science because they think it’s too hard… They don’t want to fail and be bad at something, so they just don’t try it, and that is leading to a serious decline of women in computer science when we know that the majority of jobs are going to be in those fields. So we have to get out of that behavior and get them to practice failure — practice getting the coding wrong, practice doing the wrong algorithm, and get them comfortable with not doing it right and trying again. It’s that same philosophy that we have to apply to the rest of the industry.

What kind of systemic changes need to be put in place in education to shift attitudes for female advancement?

I’m obviously a big proponent of computer science education. As we’re becoming a more technical society, this is where the jobs are at. I believe in mandatory computer science education because now we just don’t have enough women who are going into those fields. We have to be cognizant of the inherent bias that still exists in classrooms and to do something about it. Even at the playground, girls are called “bossy”. Women are being called “aggressive.” We have to stop calling young girls “bossy.” We have to call on the young women when they raise their hands in the classroom. We have to embrace young women when they show ambitious or “aggressive” behavior and address them and celebrate them.

You mention a lot of things that are fundamentally broken in the country: affordable child care, reproductive health, issues women immigrants face. They’re all huge barriers that are preventing advancement for women. We know these are issues, but what do we actually do with this information?

This, again, is a need to really inspire activism. A lot of women who get into the workforce are not pregnant yet, so they’re not advocating for paid parental leave in a workforce, and when they do have a child, they often leave the workforce or go to a company that’s going to be more favorable to them, or whose policies are going to be more progressive. The numbers are astonishing — the majority of women get pregnant while they’re on the job, and we’re one of three nations that doesn’t have paid leave; the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have paid leave. The majority of voters are women, and the majority of people in the workforce are women. It affects us directly, but we’re still not advocating for it in a large enough scope to bring about policy change.

How do we navigate this precarious scope of wanting to speak up but also being in an environment where jobs are few and far between?

It’s a great question because when we have a job market that’s still slightly flat, how do you go into your employer’s office and demand paid leave? Part of what we need to do is start organizing in workplaces so you’re not going at it alone. We have to identify male allies. The majority of breadwinners now are female, so there are a lot of men who have wives in their family who recognize the implications of not having paid leave on the family unit, so we also have to bring male allies and advocates into the process to really make sure we push for paid leave and affordable day care.

Why is competition for women kind of catty?

It’s funny — when I ran my [political] first race, I ran against a woman, and there was so much backlash about two women competing against each other, and I was really struck by it. I grew up after Title IX, where I was always competing with women. We don’t want to say to a woman, Well, don’t apply for that job because there’s another woman who wants it, just apply for the job that’s against a man, so I think there’s a cultural shift that we have to really make that tells women that competition is good. Back in the day, I do believe for a lot of women there was a limited goods theory — there was this one spot for a woman and everyone was competing for it. Now there are so many more opportunities for women, and we are the majority. That’s why I think this generation — the Millennial generation — is so much more generous with our networks. I get a physical high from hooking a sister up, from introducing her to someone. I’m not protective of my contacts or my relationships. That is the attitude we have to have.

I really believe if there are two qualified candidates sitting in front of me, and one’s a man and one’s a woman, I’m going to hire the woman. We have to start giving women opportunities in leadership. It’s something we have to own in leadership, and really take responsibility for. I struggle with this when we talk about voting. If women said they were going to vote for women, we’d be an undeniable voting block, and you’d see so many more women in elected office. But so many women say, Well, I didn’t vote for that woman just because she’s a woman — they almost wear that as a badge of honor. That’s the spirit of feminism, or the existing structure, that I’m trying to change.

But women shouldn’t be treated as a voting block necessarily.

Why not?

Because women are necessarily very different in their opinions and ideology, and men aren’t treated as a voting block.

I think men vote as a voting block. I disagree. I think if you have two candidates — a man and a woman — you’ll probably find that more men voted for the guy. The number of women in elected office has stayed stagnant for decades, so how can we say, We’re the majority of voters, but we’re not going to use our voting power to change those numbers when we know that when we get more women in elected office, you get better policies that affect women and girls and children. I’m not saying you should vote for a woman just because she’s a woman, but when all things are equal, and there are no policy or ideological differences, I do believe it’s incumbent upon us to give the leg up to a woman.

What can women who aren’t in big cities and at the disposal of a wealth of resources do for these essential opportunities you mention?

I think that we have to get more active, whether it’s in our workplace, or whether it’s in the ballot box. We have to pay attention when we go to a company — I remember when I was applying to law jobs, we were embarrassed to ask what the benefit policies were. We have to not be embarrassed to ask the questions about the policies that affect us, and then advocate for more pro-woman policies, whether it’s about pay and literally asking, Am I getting paid the same as my male colleague who’s sitting right next to me and doing the same work as I am? and really asking those questions when you’re at the negotiating table, or asking, Do we have a paid leave policy? How can I organize in the workplace to go about changing that?

It’s the same thing with local legislators. When you’re talking to them in town halls and talking to them about the issues you want them to pursue, men and women, we should be pushing them to pursue family leave policies, and affordable day care policies that will make society better. When it comes to education and gender and equity opportunities, we have to make sure that our girls are getting the same opportunities as other young boys. 

Image: Fotolia

Must Reads