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Women and Success: How To Be Boldly Ambitious While Acknowledging Help Along the Way

In the age of Hillary, Arianna and Oprah, why do women still have a hard time talking about their success in public?

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To further complicate this issue, a lot is at stake in how we tell these stories for those coming after us. The retelling of one’s climb to the top can also have great implications for how women further down the ladder anticipate the journey and even make choices of their own. While Lisa Belkin’s notorious New York Times article about the “opt out revolution” has been widely debunked, it remains true that many young women have watched their mentors and mothers brave an impossible work/family climate and they’re reticent to travel the same rocky road.   


For me (Jacki) to tell the truth about my experiences in the backrooms of the financial sector could discourage some of the best and brightest young women thinking about entering the field. While I want to be honest about continuing sexism and/or my struggles to balance work and family, I also want to be clear that for me, the long hours and challenging situations were worth it: more than compensated for by the extreme financial and professional rewards I ultimately received.


I (Courtney) listen to the stories of older women and feel, quite frankly, petrified. The “success stories” of too many of my mentors include great imbalance—either forgoing families until too late or “leaning back” from careers, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg recently explained it in  her commencement address at Barnard College (not inconsequentially, the elite college that shaped Courtney's success).


So here we are—faced with the larger implications of how we tell our success stories. On the one hand, we want to challenge one another to buck the gender trend and own our accomplishments, out loud and proud. But as dedicated feminists, we must never neglect to acknowledge the ways in which we continue to benefit from unearned privilege. It doesn’t negate our hard work, but simply puts it in perspective.


As far as the enduring difficulties of being a working woman, and for many of us, a working mother, a tone of realistic optimism is necessary. Women like Jacki must tell the truth, but with a spirit of hope in continued change. Women like Courtney must be realistic about the challenges, but continue to “lean in” to our careers, as Sandberg urges.


All of us, of course, are on a shared quest to rewrite what success in this unequal country even means. That’s an American story still unfolding.   

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Read more of her work at Jacki Zehner is a frequent media commentator on women’s success in the workplace, women and wealth, investing, and philanthropy.

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