by Dr. Betty Dahl, Award Recipient
I began asking myself, "How do women define success? Why is it so hard to define?" Other related questions cropped up: "How do men measure the success of women?" or "How does a society measure it?" At the very same time I was pondering these questions, I was reading the book by Naisbitt and Aburdene, Megatrends 2000. They report that the 1990's are the decade of women in leadership, particularly in the business world. If their figures are accurate, 79% of women overall and 67% of women with children under the age of 18 work outside the home; 74% of men work.
Moreover, women have reached what the authors term a "critical mass" in virtually all white-collar professions, including the business world, law, architecture, medicine, banking, accounting, and computer science (though I was appalled at the lack of female representation in Congress during the state of the union address). Women are starting businesses twice as fast as men and in Canada they own one-third of the business. The power-oriented management style that has in the past dominated the business world is shifting to the more democratic leadership style of women. Why? Because the authoritarian style no longer works. We now pay people for knowledge, for work that goes on in their heads. If workers do not like the style of management, they can easily take their knowledge elsewhere. Already more women than men enter college, and the American Council on Education predicts that by the year 2001, more women will have PhD's than men. It seemed to me after reading all these figures that women should be feeling very encouraged.
At the very same time I read some recent studies by Carol Gilligan and by the American Association of University Women noting that girls in high school--ready to enter college--have lower self-esteem than they did as elementary school girls. The studies report that girls emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image, relatively low expectations from life and much less confidence in themselves. Though at age 9 the majority had felt confident, assertive and positive about themselves, only 29% felt good about themselves by the end of high school. These losses in self-esteem were viewed as severe and long-lasting. The report by AAUW also noted that society still signals girls there are things they can't do, and that teachers unintentionally give more and better classroom attention to boys. This group plans to lobby for improved gender-equity training for educators.
The more I pondered the apparent incongruities of these two sets of data, and the more I talked to other women, the more I began to agree that success for women is hard to define. Certainly one is tempted to say that women measure success in the same way as men--success in school or success in a job--but I rather think not. I see women's definitions of success being more complex and diverse. Success in a job is a far smaller component of success for women. To feel successful, women need to feel their relationships are successful--with others on the job, with their spouse, with their parents, with their children, with their friends. Carol Gilligan has written well on this contextual world of women, noting that women, more than men, assume the ethic of caring for others. She further notes that this sense of responsibility to others complicates women's career choices. They find themselves suspended between the duties of caring and their own needs for development of their talents.
I suspect that success for women is also puzzling because women are apt to define success by internal rather than external standards. Success is defined by what they themselves feel rather than by external validators. If society says I am successful because I am a chair of a large department, that is nice and good, but in my heart I may still feel unsuccessful if my children were in trouble with the law or my husband unhappy or my friends mad at me.
Feeling successful is also more difficult because women are asked to be successful in a greater variety of arenas (run a good home, share in community activities, support a husband's career, be successful at work, be physically attractive). Men are measured more singularly by their vocational success.
Too, the parameters for success in our society are typically those established by men for men. The conditions of the workplace were set up for a man who was free to be at his job early and remain late. His wife was at home to take care of meals and the kids. Today there is no consideration given to the fact that day care centers close at six, and a working mother has no choice but to pick the child up by that hour. She cannot stay late for corporate meetings. The tendency to judge success by a male modus operandi has also been true of university settings.
Researchers recognize at least four career choice for our young women today:
4. delayed entry worker
Though given these choices, society places barriers in each path.
1. Homemakers elect to stay home to raise children and not seek paid work outside the home. The role brings with it no pay, leaving the woman at the financial mercy of her relationship with her spouse. This makes her particularly vulnerable in times when divorce rates are high. If the typical housewife were being paid for her services at the rates one pays for such services, she would be getting an average salary of over $36,000.
2. The integrator combines a job or career with homemaking. This is now the normative lifestyle of women; 67% of women in Nebraska work while raising preschool children (this report came from UNO's Center for Public Affairs Research). Thus for many young women, the question now is not so often whether or not she will work, but how and when she will fit work in with family.
Society has failed to adequately support the woman choosing this path. One of the greatest barriers to success in this path is the lack of a commitment by our nation to excellent day care. Another is a failure of businesses to recognize the need for flexible hours that allow women to successfully combine a commitment to care of children or care of aging parents with their work. One cannot give 100% to a job and 100% to a family because 100% cannot be divided by two and remain 100%. Women, except a few professional women, consistently provide more child care and do more of the family tasks than do men, even when their jobs require the same levels of commitment.
3. Careerists make a commitment to work to the exclusion of homemaking or family. The number of women making this choice has risen rather rapidly in the last decade, particularly among the highly-intelligent and well-educated, single female. Interestingly, the woman without children is more likely to be working than a male without a child. Even with a commitment to work, this woman finds major road blocks in terms of reaching the upper levels of administration and management. My sister is a financial manager for IBM, and when she heard about my speech, she said, "Be sure to tell them about the good old boy network. It is impossible to work with."
4. Finally there are the late entry workers, or delayors. These women choose to raise a family first and then enter the world of work. Some lifespan theorists studying paths of women's lives suggest that love and family are a higher priority until age forty and that after forty, women experience a need for achievement and validation from the outside world.
HIS.....coming & going
(by Lee Masters)
i have noticed
somewhere around forty
tend to come in from the field
with a sigh
and removing their coat in the hall
call into the kitchen
you were right
it ain't out there
just like you've always said
with the children gone at last
puts her hat on her head
the hell it ain't
coming and going
in the doorway
Women in this career path feel that there are about 12 to 15 very busy child-rearing years, and that it is best to delay entry into the world of work until the children are in school or are launched. Disadvantages are associated with coming into a work force at age 40, only to find that work skills are outdated. One also tends to start at the bottom of the pay ladder.
So I ask you, which of these choices is the best for our young women? Who is the most successful?
Interestingly, research finds little consensus even among women that any one of these is a "right path" or "successful path." Let me quote from an article by Carol Pogash:
"Something happened on the way to liberation. There seem to be three sexes these days: men, women and working women. And working women and housewives are at quiet war with one another. Many of the stay-at-home women and the working women dislike, distrust, and disapprove of one another. Sometimes they are envious of one another." A similar problem was reported by Schaef in her book Women's Reality."
Not only do women on different career paths not agree on success, but also women on the same path. Barbara Kerr tracked her class of gifted children and found that many of these highly-intelligent girls had picked the role of homemaker. Some were unhappy in the role, but many were happy. She found some of them in dual career marriages. Some of them were happy, but some were unhappy....What makes the difference between those who feel successful and those that don't?
Because I have been a longtime integrator--and because I am in a college setting where many others are in this role--and because there are young women here who will be following this path, I would like to give a few minutes' worth of advice about finding success in this role.
No one I know, nor any research I have read, finds the road of the integrator to be an easy path: challenging and satisfying, perhaps, but not easy. Holding a job while raising a family involves a heavy commitment of time and energy. It is definitely for the mentally stable.
My first bit of advice is:
1. Do not lose sight of personal goals: those who feel successful continue to have hobbies, friendships, a social life, a church, time with spouses. They do not give up their ethic of caring to fit into a male model of success. They define their own roles and refuse to be limited by gender.
2. Success for integrators is more likely if some work is delegated. I recall reading about Madame Curie. What comforted me was that Marie worked hard, had two children, a husband Pierre who shared in child care tasks and hired two nursemaids. Barbara Kerr, in her book Smart Girls, Gifted Women, noted that many illustrious women combined these roles not by becoming self-pitying superwomen, but by delegating work to governesses and household help. Some women try to cope with work demands by working harder and longer hours. You burn out. I rather suggest setting priorities, making some compromises, but also getting help.
3. Integration of roles is best achieved in a relationship where the husband respects a woman's right to use her talents in work outside the home and does not feel her work diminishes his stature. The importance of a supportive spouse simply cannot be underestimated. I recently read that women in unsupportive marriages have higher cholesterol levels, increased levels of depression, and a decreased immune system functioning. One researcher likened an unhappy marriage to a disability analogous to minority status, economic deprivation or physical illness.
4. Combining career and family works best when some job compromises can be made during the early years of parenting before the child gets to school. One or other of the couple needs some flexibility in their job to allow for family emergencies. Dual career parents with young children experience the greatest role strain and sometimes the situation demands that career plans be negotiated for a period of time.
5. When work loses its gender--that is, it does not become men's work or women's work, the life of the integrator is easier. Work is seen as family work in which all participate as needs arise.
6. Another characteristic of women who have been successful integrators is that they allow themselves some personal time--time to be alone. Despite a busy schedule, they find time to read, to walk, to think, to regroup. They are comfortable with themselves.
7. Integrators feel most successful when they find work where employers support a balance of work and family commitments through workplace policies. These employers know that the realities of family life affect morale, productivity and job satisfaction. These employers have had the courage to test new models of work productivity.
8. Lastly, I have come to recognize that those who successfully integrate careers and work learn to ride with the punches and maintain a sense of humor and perspective. They have recognized that life brings problems that need solving, and that the ups and downs of life give rise to the full range of emotions we share as human beings.
Yes, I think it is fair to say that women's success is a puzzle, an enigma. It is hard to define because the paths to it are so diverse and do not fit into the male models of success by which we so often try to measure it. It is also hard to define because its definitions lie within us. To be successful, a woman's heart must tell her she is indeed successful.