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The Ambition Decisions

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The Ambition Decisions

What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life


15 min read
8 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Successful women face career and life choices shaped by a society that often undercuts their dreams.

Editorial Rating



  • Analytical
  • Bold
  • Engaging


The socioeconomic forces shaping women’s lives have changed dramatically in a generation, leaving many women without clear templates for success. Ambitious, successful women generally face similar obstacles, often with little mentoring or support. Women strive to reach their career goals, while also performing more emotional labor than men and handling child-rearing responsibilities. Essayists Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace interview fellow 1990s Northwestern University alumnae to learn how they navigated the complex forces shaping their lives.


Women don’t have as many career templates to follow as men do.

For generations, men planning their careers could consider the lives of men before them for inspiration. Women don’t have this option. Women today have no template to follow, because their options drastically differ from women’s options a generation ago. 

The life stories of more than 40 women who graduated from Northwestern University between 1989 and 1993 illustrate the context they faced as ambitious women. These alums include a television writer, a stay-at-home parent, a rabbi, an artist who sells her work on Etsy and several financial executives. These former classmates navigated their personal and professional lives during a period of economic instability and political change in the United States.

The careers and life paths of ambitious women tend to follow three different trajectories.

Alumnae who graduated from Northwestern University in the 1990s followed one of three paths:

  1. “High achievers”  These women prioritized their careers, with the goal of advancing in their fields...

About the Authors

Hana Schank contributes to The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Washington Post, and is the strategy director for New America’s Public Interest Technology. Elizabeth Wallace worked for Vogue, Seventeen, Nylon, Lucky and Us Weekly, and contributes to Architectural Digest and Domino.

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    A. C. 2 years ago
    Great summary
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    R. T. 3 years ago
    Great read – on something I don’t usually reflect deeply on even though my partner obviously faces these issues! Some of it resonates; some of it doesn't.