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Opinion In one fell swoop, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg set back the women's movement. By declaring an "ambition gap" between men and women, suggesting that "until women are as ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much as men," Sandberg defined 'success' in such a narrow way that most women (and men) can never attain it. More saliently, far fewer may want to.

Or need to. One option is simply to go childless, which removes the need to juggle children with work responsibilities. Seventy-one per cent of working women today have children aged six to 17, but a range of high-profile women like US Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor have foregone children and thrived in their absence.

At least, in their careers. But what about those of us, women and men, who actually think foregoing family is a much worse option than missing out on a job promotion? For me, personally, I need my kids to constantly remind me of what matters most in life, and how little any career attainments actually mean. They keep me humble, and happy (and usually in that order). And they are what makes my work meaningful, because I work for them, not in spite of them.

Well, for those of us whose "ambition" is to have a happy family and a successful career, Sandberg's counsel is a step back into the Dark Ages.

After all, as Lauren Ashburn, president of Ashburn Media Company, notes, women outnumber men in the workforce, and should be able to dictate more flexible working arrangements, for both women and men. Indeed, Facebook is exemplary in providing perks that make it easier for mothers and fathers to better balance their work and family lives. Technology, too, makes it easier to work longer hours without actually being in the office for longer durations.

Which isn't to say that there aren't trade-offs. As Judge Loretta Preska wrote in a recent legal decision dismissing claims that Bloomberg had engaged in a pattern of discrimination against working mothers, "The law does not mandate ‘work-life balance'. In a company like Bloomberg, which explicitly makes all-out dedication its expectation, making a decision that preferences family over work comes with consequences."

Such consequences absolutely may include permanent detours on the way to the CEO's office.

But that's OK. Again, many of us, women and men, understand that a focus on family may crimp our career aspirations, and are fine with that. The parental payoff is far greater than any stock option grant or bonus check.

No, the problem is that people like Sandberg believe that women are somehow worse off or less than men because they may have their priorities differently aligned than hers. Apparently, a high percentage of women feel that there's a glass ceiling imposed by men that keeps them down the rungs of the corporate ladder. That's not acceptable. But if we can remove those perceived and actual limits, and women and men then choose to prefer family over career advancement, that's not a question of limiting ambition. It's rather an example of having a different ambition.

Surely Sandberg, a mother of two, must understand this. And yet her counsel seems to skew toward work. That's understandable: she's COO of Facebook, after all, and no one is asking for her opinion on motherhood and parenting. But that's too bad, as I suspect her insight into how to be a good mother while secondarily serving as COO of Facebook would be welcome counsel for the vast majority of people who will never be COO of anything, but have already made the choice to be a parent.

We don't lack ambition. We could use a few pointers. That would be real advice worth taking, not this "you're not ambitious enough unless you put family second and work first". That might benefit a company's bottom line, but it's terrible advice for society. ®

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