News & Politics

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?

In the age of unapologetically ambitious women like Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, media mogul Arianna Huffington and much-revered Oprah Winfrey, why is it that women still have such a hard time talking about their success in public? Study after study confirms that women consistently underestimate their own performance on tests and in workplaces, shy away from clout positions at critical junctures in their careers, and undersell their worth in negotiations.

Of course, the flipside of these studies is often overlooked. Men are more likely to overestimate their performance, shy away from their share of housework and childrearing, and give significantly less money—proportionally—to charity than women do.

As a new crop of graduates enters the workforce to continuing pay and power imbalances, these questions need addressing. But the wisest question is not necessarily, how can women play ball just like men? Instead we must ask: how can women embrace their ambition, while also remaining humble, fair and generous? How can we tell our stories of success while acknowledging the communities that contributed to our great heights and the continued systemic injustices that still affect us all?

The answer is, it's our job to do both. And as feminist activists of different generations and professional backgrounds, we’re both acutely aware that the personal and the political collide in the telling of “success stories.”

I (Jacki) was one of 13 women partners out of the 221 total fortunate enough to be at Goldman Sachs the year it went public, and the first and only woman trader. On the one hand, of course, I worked incredibly hard, and I think it’s important to represent my sweat equity and profitability accurately. On the other hand, there’s no denying that I benefited from a hugely lucrative case of “right time, right place.”

 

For me (Courtney), my writing life is also a tricky journey to represent accurately. On the one hand, I was struck by publishing lightening when my first book went to auction when I was just 25 years old. In part this happened because I was inexhaustibly ambitious and wrote my fingers to the bone. In part it was because I met someone at an elite college who introduced me to her literary agent. I never would have been at that college had my parents not invested—both financially and culturally—in my education. All kinds of privilege are at play in my story.

 

As we face the challenge of composing our own stories, we are confronted with critical questions: What are the potential benefits and damages of how we, two successful women, tell our own stories? Are we denying systemic and enduring racial and class discrimination if we claim our successes too autonomously? Or are we falling into stereotypically feminine scripts by being too self-abnegating, too unwilling to own our accomplishments?   

 

Studies repeatedly show that women are less likely to own their accomplishments than men. This is not only self-effacing, but destructive of women’s collective rise to equal power. It's often said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” If women can’t even see themselves as deserving leaders, how can we ever expect the next generation to?

 

As much as we want women—including ourselves—to own our accomplishments proudly and publicly, we also have deep respect for women who acknowledge that it “takes a village” to raise a leader, and further, that systemic racism, classism etc. still influence who is supported by our various villages (schools, workplaces, neighborhoods). For example, I (Jacki) know that I never would have succeeded as I did without mentors that kept my career on track. Likewise, I (Courtney) know that much of my writing success is due to the fact that my parents, despite coming from non-intellectual families, filled my childhood home with books and encouraged me to read from a very young age. My high school counselor never questioned whether I was college-bound, as do so many working in low-income neighborhoods.

 

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 www.courtneyemartin.com. Jacki Zehner is a frequent media commentator on women’s success in the workplace, women and wealth, investing, and philanthropy.