Many Americans have experienced burnout, and its adjacent phenomenon, languishing, during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, it has hit women, especially mothers, particularly hard and women’s professional ambition has suffered, according to a survey by CNBC/SurveyMonkey. This trend might be read as a grim step backward in the march toward gender egalitarianism. Or, as in some of the criticism of Ms. Osaka, as an indictment of younger generations’ work ethic. Either interpretation would be misguided.
A better way of putting it: Ms. Osaka has given a public face to a growing, and long overdue, revolt. Like so many other women, the tennis prodigy has recognized that she has the right to put her health and sanity above the unending demands imposed by those who stand to profit from her labors. In doing so, Ms. Osaka exposes a foundational lie in how high-achieving women are taught to view their careers.
In a society that prizes individual achievement above most other things, ambition is often framed as an unambiguous virtue, akin to hard work or tenacity. But the pursuit of power and influence is, to some extent, a vote of confidence in the profit-driven myth of meritocracy that has betrayed millions of American women through the course of the pandemic and before it, to our disillusionment and despair.
It is a cruel irony that ambition is what’s often sold to women as an inextricable ingredient in our eventual liberation. From the career-branded Barbie dolls of my 1990s girlhood, to the “lean in” ethos of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, to the so-called “girlboss” era of the last decade, an ethos of careerism has been intrinsic to the mainstream cultural conception of women’s “empowerment.” Women are told that we not only can have it all, but also we should welcome the workload with open arms.
But that Sandbergian logic has not delivered work force equity. Across class, race, profession and location, women overwhelmingly bear the brunt of unpaid chores and “emotional” labor, both at work and at home. The resulting “gender stress gap” is undoubtedly compounded by a longstanding gender pay gap, both of which predate this pandemic. Before and during the ongoing crisis, Black and Latinx women in the United States have paid the steepest price.