Over the last 40 years, ambition and success have become loaded terms, especially for women: Now that we can do it all, does that mean that we should? It depends on who -- and when -- you ask.
A recent nationwide "Success Poll" by Real Simple and Time found that women jump into the career world hungry for success -- 73 percent of women in their 20s ranked it as "very important" -- but that eager majority falls to 61 percent for women in their 30s, 50 percent for women in their 40s and 50s until it drops down to 37 percent for women in their 60s.
With women outnumbering men at universities and increasingly taking on household breadwinning roles, it's easy to wonder why this ambition drop-off occurs. Is the circus-level juggling act of "having it all" to blame? What about inter-office gender discrimination? Or is it that not all working women even want to "lean in" close enough to reach CEO-status?
If only there was one simple answer.
HuffPost Women decided to talk to working women between the ages of 25 and 45 to see how they internalized contemporary messages about success and how that influence manifested in their careers. Despite what you may have heard, there's not one blanket answer: The intersection of a woman's work and personal life is a unique, not a universal, experience. Read their stories below.
"I always knew I was good in math and sciences growing up, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. Engineering was not something that was presented as an option, especially to women. In college, I started out in accounting, but I thought 'this is going to be very boring.' When I found engineering, I was immediately like, 'this is what I need to do.'
After I finished my master’s I transferred to a job in Atlanta. I was seeing a guy and I got pregnant, but we were not working out. I was 30 at the time. I had a good job and I owned my own house, so I decided I would have a baby on my own. I had these dreams of being this super career woman, with a kid, thinking I could do it all. But it was just me and this baby -- all of my family was still in Louisiana. About six months in, I applied to go back to my old job so I could be with my family. It was a hard decision, because I’ve always seen myself as very career-oriented, but becoming a mother helped me find balance in ways I didn’t know it would.
I love that my son, who is 9, spends time with his family. I love that he is close to his grandparents. If I was still my late-20, early 30-year-old self, I probably would look at myself now and think, 'Oh, I’m 40 and I’m still at this level? I should have been way past that by now.' I see women who are my age who are far more advanced in their careers and I do sometimes still feel a twinge of, I don’t want to say jealousy, but of 'I should’ve been doing that.' But I do see myself as successful. I look back and say, 'This is the path that I chose -- and look how great my son is doing.'" -- Shelly, 40, aerospace engineer in Louisiana
"I've been here for about four years and I’ve had three different titles. So I'm one that's always trying to reach the top … I feel like a lot of my friends are OK with stability of jobs, as opposed to wanting to move up within the company. I think they're kind of happy getting a paycheck and doing their daily tasks, whereas I feel like I'm a little bit more ambitious in the fact that I want that higher title, I want that higher pay and I work longer hours to make sure that I can get there.
In comparison to my friends, I do feel like I'm successful. But that's because I want to be, and I work hard. I have a couple of girlfriends who have good jobs and who have pursued higher education -- they have MBAs -- but not very many. Most of them have graduated college, but they're really OK with doing the secretary jobs. Because that's not what they want out of life. They want to be able to raise kids. This sounds terrible, but I'd rather make money and be a part of a team and be in the corporate world. I feel like I will always work, no matter if I have kids or win the lottery. That's just who I am." --Jami, 28, Product Manager in Texas
"I have a 4-year-old daughter, and I would just like to be able to provide her with the best living that I possibly can. It's more money-driven, my desire to succeed.
I've heard that if you're in a job and you haven't advanced within three to four years of being there, then it's time to look for another job. That's kind of the rule of thumb that I live by. Don't try to get too comfortable and continue to challenge myself and figure out what it is that I want to do. Given my age and given the knowledge of just how many people that are coming into the workforce at a younger age, there definitely is more pressure to get to a higher level if that's where you want to be, just for worry of what's coming behind you." --Jennie, 34, Telecommunications Specialist in Washington D.C.
"When I see someone around my age who I feel like I’m nowhere near, I start stressing. I did that a lot at the beginning of my career, but now I’m learning that’s not something I need to do. When I first started my career, my goal was to be in a management position by the time I was 30, but that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m actually OK with that. I feel like I still have a lot to learn. I’ve sat down multiple times to try and write down a clear career path for myself, like, 'What do I want to do to get where I want to be?' The problem is, sometimes I don’t really know where I want to be. I know I want to continue to work in PR, but I’m not sure what industry I want to be in. I would love to be at the top of my field, in terms of being a subject-matter expert and having whoever I’m working with really trust my decisions. But it’s not about having a specific title." -- Linh, 29, Public relations specialist in Texas
"I actually started at my first company as a receptionist when I was 19. I wanted to get my degree in construction management, but what ended up happening was that I'm the eldest of three kids and my parents are Mexican immigrants. I didn't really have time for school, because I had to work and help my parents bring in the bacon. I stayed in that company and they taught me from the ground up with no degree. It's awesome, but it's tough because there's sexual harassment all of the time.
I don't literally want to be with the guys -- I just want to make as much as they do, but there's always an obstacle placed in front of you. As a woman in the construction field, you have to work 10 times harder than a guy because not only do you have to do what they do, but then you have to do all of the little tedious administrative duties that they think a woman should be doing. They shouldn't be creating labels or excel spreadsheets -- that’s a woman's job. But I feel like man or woman, if you work hard enough, people notice that. If you work hard for anything, you almost will for sure get it. You never know, though. I could be saying this and five years down the line, I'll be singing a different tune." --Adriana, 30, Project Engineer in California
"Of course, everybody feels pressure to do more. A lot of it comes from myself, but a lot of it is from media. You see a lot of successful women in the news right now. Even though they're still a minority in those positions, you see a lot more of it now, so sometimes you kind of aim to be those women. Even the way women are portrayed on TV shows, in their suits. They're supposed to look extremely gorgeous and very fashionable and it's often hard to look that way and be that way. I wouldn't like to be at the top of my field, maybe middle management, rather than at the very top. I definitely feel pressure to be successful, but I just don't think that that type of lifestyle would meet my desires. I want to travel, and the level of commitment that's required for someone in a senior executive position just isn't something I could see myself being able to do." --Dina, 30, Marketing Coordinator, Canada
"I totally feel like I'm on the right track. There's always more to do, but there's never been any pressure, like, 'If I don't reach this goal, I won't be successful.' I measure success by 'Are we still growing?' It doesn't matter if I'm talking about two people or 10 people. It's measured in how we're growing as a company. My individual success is tied into that.
Really what it comes down to is what makes you happy. If you feel like you want to be that superstar parent, go for it. Do it. In an ideal world, in 10 years, I'd probably have a kid and I'd probably be working part-time. I think my focus would probably be more geared towards being a mom and being that support system. Kids today need that." --Christine, 30, Recruiter in Maryland
"Emergency medicine is a beautiful field in that it is very broad -- you work with both adults and kids, and you have to know a lot. You're the expert in handling the first 15 to 20 minutes of any emergency. But I also enjoy the lifestyle it provides. You can work a shift, and at the end of that shift, you're done. You don't have to be on call. You can have a life, and children. I just had my third.
I'm very ambitious, which to me, means being a go-getter. I've been that way since middle school and high school. I'm maybe less ambitious as my focus has shifted to my children, but I'm being patient about it. I don't feel sad -- at all -- about what I've been doing the last couple of years. I'll know when it's time to rev back up. I do have a desire to be at the top, to have more of a public platform as a physician, and I also have artistic aspirations. I'm incredibly interested in design and party planning, and have a strategy for developing a side business -- the design doctor! I'd like to get there before I'm 40. That's a big number for me. --Danika, 35, Emergency room physician in Texas
"I was a stay-at-home mom for nine years. I got married right out of high school and we had two kids, who are now 18 and 14. When we divorced, I took a job at one of the local banks, which was my first full-time job. Eventually, I moved to the company where I am now.
I don’t have a very good five or 10 year plan. My kids will both be gone in five years and I don’t know where I'll be, because I’m a mom first and then I work. But I do think I’m more ambitious now than when I was younger. The younger Sheila may not have realized how important work-life balance is, because she wasn’t used to working. Five years ago, I would have looked at women who got to stay home with their children and thought, “Oh, they’re so lucky.” But the more that I mature, and the more my children mature, the less I feel that way. Now I realize how important it is, for me, to stand on my own two feet." -- Sheila, 37, data documentation specialist for rocket systems company in Virginia
"I’m am a relatively new partner at a large law firm, where I do a lot of class action work and a lot of product liability work. I started law school right after college, then took a judicial clerkship in Minnesota, and have been in private practice at large law firms ever since -- for the past 9 years or so.
There are a lot of ways to be at the top of my field. I would consider the very top to be a supreme court justice, and I don’t think that’s in my future [laughs] -- I am not going to be the next Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But I would like to be a top person, maybe a managing partner at a law firm, or a general counsel for a company. I think it could be in my future, certainly not in the next 10 years, but maybe in the next 20. But it’s still very difficult for women in law firms. There are not very many women at the top, although I have had a couple of women who were equity partners in the firm who have really had my back, and that has been huge. It’s still a very male, competitive profession; you have to be assertive and advocate for yourself, but not cross that very, very fine line where suddenly you’re perceived as 'bitchy.'" --Lindsay, 34, attorney in California
*Interviews have been condensed and edited.