Naomi Osaka and the Cost of Ambition 1

This week, a woman ambitious enough to become the world’s second-ranked women’s tennis player at 23 chose to prioritize her personal well-being above the opportunity to play in one of her sport’s most critical tournaments.

Naomi Osaka announced Monday that she would withdraw from the French Open, just days after tennis officials fined her $15,000 and threatened to oust her from the tournament for opting out of its mandatory news conferences. Ms. Osaka explained via Twitter that speaking to the international media takes a heavy toll on her mental health, compounding the anxiety inherent to Grand Slam tournaments. “I thought it was better to exercise self-care,” she wrote, adding that the tournament’s rules mandating press access are “outdated.”

Setting aside the unfair public scrutiny that is often leveled at Black women athletes like Ms. Osaka, the tennis star’s choice echoes another, broader phenomenon. Far and wide, in public and in private, workers are choosing personal boundaries over professional ambitions. Rather than comply with mandates to return to the office, employees are quitting altogether. Job vacancies in the United States are at a 20-year high.

The problem, as others have noted before me, is not a sudden scourge of laziness. The problem is work.

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.

All this has been widely discussed and covered in the media, but consciousness-raising hasn’t been enough to forestall a staggering collective setback in women’s economic outcomes. In April 2021, some 4.5 million fewer women were employed in the United States compared with February 2020. Either by personal choice or necessity, women’s labor force participation hit a 33-year low in January.

For those of us with the good fortune to arrive at this moment with life and livelihood intact, there are other morale challenges to contend with. Chief among these is the pressure to meet employers’ business-as-usual performance demands amid a year’s worth of unprocessed grief. And then there’s the knowledge that as workers toiled and fizzled, the nation’s billionaire bosses became even richer. One needn’t be lazy, weak or unwell to reassess whether it’s worth bothering.

It’s a hard-won lesson for the goal-setting American worker: that as much as you might love your work, work won’t love you back. Despite the fondness you may feel for the people you work with, you are not a family.

Ambition won’t fix our broken relationship with work, least of all for the ambitious worker in question. A better solution is collective action: Unions demonstrably raise wages and workplace standardsacross industries and even in nonunionized workplaces.

The next best thing, for those like Ms. Osaka with the option to do so, is to refuse to capitulate to employers’ demands at the expense of one’s personal well-being. Saying “no” is not a mark of belligerence, but a requirement for surviving modern life.

Kelli María Korducki (@kelkord) is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is the author of “Hard To Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up.”

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