Paris – I once had a French boss in her mid-thirties. One Friday evening, as we discussed an upcoming merger, she confessed to me that she simply didn’t have any career ambition, other than aspiring to be “better than herself.”
At first, I was horrified. No ambition? Those words simply aren’t in my vocabulary. American-born and French-bred, six years of expatriation in Paris have yet to extinguish my drive and type-A personality, despite the many cultural forces of opposition. I’m a career woman who knows what she wants, and is ready to aim high. Sorry, not sorry.
It was a shame and a misunderstanding, my boss then added, that she was often perceived as having des dents qui rayent le parquet. In the hallways of our office, colleagues commented: “Well, she’s got her sights set high,” they muttered under their breath. Clearly, her schmoozing with upper management hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“But it’s simply not true!” she protested. And I believed her.
Six months later, I would request to leave her team, fed up with her political maneuvering, lack of people skills, and instincts to crush everyone she believed to be a threat.
It goes without saying that French work culture is radically different from its American counterpart. And in the French workplace, ambition is a loaded subject. Of all the learning curves I’ve encountered in the work world over the past three years, it is probably the most counterintuitive.
Why? Simply put, having ambition is not seen as a plus. In fact, it is frequently outright discouraged. And in this country, it more often than not comes with a set of sharp teeth and thicker skin. When you add to that quandary the question of female ambition, things get even trickier.
We Americans are very attached to the concept of individual success. The French? Not so much.
Even less popular is the idea of female professional success. While being a self-described “Career Woman” is a point of pride in the US, in France it’s a huge faux pas. You would never find an Ellevate, a Levo League, or a Sheryl Sandberg in France. No counterparts exist. Let me tell you, this can get not only frustrating, but lonely.
To beat the loneliness, I met with a fellow américaine in my field not long ago. A senior social media and content producer, she had been transferred from her agency’s New York office to Paris for a European client, and was three years in. She was just what I expected: bold, assertive, unwilling to compromise on her career goals, straight-to-the-point. Yet, she was hitting typical walls. Her hierarchy didn’t want to promote her to a more advanced role, though she had demonstrated her capability.
“If we were in the US, we would both be running departments by now,” we sighed. I thought of all my friends in NYC, working their way quickly up the ranks of Google and Food&Wine.
American women understand that if they want to succeed at work, their presence and accomplishments must not go unnoticed. This is the antithesis of French workplace etiquette. For someone like my French boss, it is far better to fly under the radar and maneuver in secret. Nothing is more distasteful here than someone owning up to their excellent work. Instead of “bragging”, one would be better advised to pass off the credit, until the day comes to fill bigger shoes. Career progression is slower here, and perhaps steeper for women.
Of course, this is all quite complex. Part of it is French work culture, and part of it is the way the French have partitioned gender roles and norms. Above all, it has to do with French mindsets.
Current attitudes towards ambition are closely tied to ways of thinking about individual success, power, and elitism. History provides an explanation. From the time of Louis XIV up through the French Revolution, those who aspired to rise at court survived and thrived by means of backstabbing, political intriguing, or outright adulation.
The finest example is probably that of the Duchesse de Polignac, a beauty born into an ancient aristocratic family encumbered by debt. She would become Marie-Antoinette’s favorite, and see her family reap the benefit both financially and socially. The Duchesse’s undisputed leadership of the Queen’s inner circle led to rumors regarding Marie-Antoinette’s sexuality and extravagance.
With this in mind, it is not hard to understand how and why the French have come to consider ambition in a negative light. In France’s golden age, it was oft at the root of favoritism and manipulation. In turn, this led to a maelstrom of social inequality and injustice. It ended with a violent revolution that saw many a ‘successful’ aristocrat before the guillotine.
This may explain why the French just aren’t so hot on the idea of flaunting their successes, much less their desire to get there.
Yet, no matter what anyone says, the ancien régime is not dead. Yesterday’s Versailles is today’s workplace. Which simply means that the intrigues, rumors, and hacks that women used at court are now alive and well at work. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.
What’s a girl to do?
For now, I’ll play the American card, take my five weeks of paid vacation, and pretend I don’t have any career goals.