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How Women Define Success

BY PEGGY DREXLER via The Daily Beast
April 16, 2013


Personal growth vs. career goals. Women say one is more important—and it’s not the one you think.

Gloria spent what seemed like her entire life dreaming of becoming a lawyer. As a child, she’d make her sisters “play law office,” holding pretend meetings, filling out pretend paperwork, and lining up her stuffed animals to serve as judge and jury. For her birthday one year, her father gave her light pink business cards that read “Attorney-in-Training,” which she’d eagerly hand out to everyone she met.

After law school, she went to work for a big time New York criminal firm, and following a few huge wins established herself as one of the country’s top criminal attorneys under 35—male or female. The partners at her firm rewarded her hard work and talent with promotions, raises, and placement on the most interesting cases. She described her work to me as incredibly fulfilling. When she and her husband, Martin, decided to have children, Gloria never questioned whether she’d go back to work after the yearlong sabbatical she knew she was lucky to have been granted.

Ten years later, Gloria was indeed back to work and as busy as ever—but struggling in a way she hadn’t expected. “I love being a mom,” she told me. “But work is work, and the problem is that I don’t actually miss my son when I’m there. Is that wrong? It feels wrong.” 10-year-old James is smart and talented—an accomplished pianist, already—and kind to others. Gloria speaks of him with great pride. “But for me, there is just absolutely nothing like the feeling of putting in the hours, being part of a team, and, ultimately, hearing someone read aloud a judgment in your favor,” she said. “I know it probably sounds heartless, or at least un-motherly, and I would never give up my son for anything in the world, but I can picture myself not being a mom. I can’t picture myself not being a lawyer.” Getting her own paycheck—and a sizeable one at that—made her feel powerful and self-sufficient. So did the respect she knew she commanded from the partners in her firm, and her peers in the field. By all rights, Gloria had pretty good work/ life balance but this, to her, was success: feeling smart, necessary, strong.

Usually, when we talk about success in terms of how it’s defined and experienced by men versus how it is by women, we call out the differences, which tend to fall along stereotypical gender lines. According to a 2006 study that appeared in the journal Sex Roles, for example, when women talk about success, they talk about the importance of relationships and feeling valued. Men focus more on material success. Surveys, like a recent one commissioned by Citi and LinkedIn, further perpetuate the notion that women want balance while men want achievement. Women want to “have it all.” Men just want money. It’s an easy generalization to uphold, especially in a culture that still promotes the idea that men should be if not the primary breadwinners, then pretty significant contributors to the family pot.

But women want money, too. In fact, although the most widely hyped statistic pulled from the Citi/ LinkedIn study was that 96 percent of women think they can “have it all,” with only 17 percent of women considering reaching the height of success in their field a factor in such an assessment, money ranked second in terms of how women define success. That’s because for many, male or female, money is tied to feelings of security and self-importance, and often very directly related to how much a person is worth at work. And so when women talk about wanting to feel valued, is it so different from when we talk about wanting to feel prestigious?

In fact, a recent survey of more than 4,000 male and female professionals by management consulting firm Accenture found that there may be more similarities than differences between men and women when it comes to defining success. More than two thirds of females—and the same number of males—surveyed felt they could “have it all.” More than half turned down a job due to concerns about its impact on work-life balance. Both genders, meanwhile, ranked the qualities of career success as work-life balance first, followed by money, recognition, and autonomy. And in the end, 53 percent of women, and 50 percent of men, said they are satisfied with their jobs. A 2010 study of male and female business school graduates published in the Journel of Behavioral Studies in Business, meanwhile, asked 2,000 men and women, “What is success to you?” Women answered “Career goals.” Men: “personal growth.” Read full article>>