working women

Getting to the Top Means Being Realistic

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A recent set of Harvard Business School studies show that relative to men, we women believe we’re capable of equal success in the workforce, are less ambitious when it comes to getting the “top” jobs, perceive more conflicts associated with getting these positions, and have more non-career goals in life.

This is headier stuff than first meets the eye.

Notice that the study didn’t draw any causal conclusions. It didn’t because of a concept called “reflexivity.” Reflexivity is the idea that some things don’t have a simple cause-and-effect relationship but rather have a circular cause-and-effect relationship. An example of reflexivity is if both the following sentences are true:

  • Women are less ambitious about getting “top jobs” because they perceive more life conflicts and have other goals.
  • Women have other goals and perceive more life conflicts with getting “top jobs” because they are less ambitious.

We believe that career ambition and career success for women is absolutely a reflexive phenomenon. What we see around us influences what we think we’re capable of and vice-verse. That’s why female role models matter, moms like buying Goldie Blox for their daughters, and society seems to love (and hate) hearing female executives talk about work-life balance.

We all know that some women really are less ambitious than some men (just as some men are less ambitious than some women). But there seems to be a general reluctance to publicly admit that is true for fear of perpetuating another generation of disappointing female leadership numbers. One recent poll even found that a majority of young women think its socially unacceptable to have no ambition.

We can certainly understand that there’s a real fear of deterring some young women from trying to achieve more if we highlight any tradeoffs a career might entail. Whether those trade-offs are for more time with family or simply just increased career-related stress, there is well-meaning concern over dissuading impressionable young minds from achieving their full potential.

However, we are actually encouraged by the Harvard data. We believe that in a career marathon, the realistic ones who plan, research, and are armed with the best information are the ones more likely to survive the difficulties ahead. You wouldn’t attempt to climb Everest with just visions of glory and no expectations of frostbite. The prepared corporate executives are the ones who train themselves mentally, emotionally, and even physically for the challenges ahead. If women are more realistic than men about the trade-offs it takes to pursue anything single-mindedly, it seems to us that they may well be at an advantage.

Not every woman wants to become a CEO nor an executive and that’s absolutely fine. But we think the ones that do have a better shot if they’re realistic (warts and all) about what it may take to get there.

Fairygodboss is committed to helping women in the workplace. Join us by signing up at and reviewing your employer.

working women

Why We Hate Writing about Marissa Mayer’s Pregnancy

Photo Credit: Ethan Miller / Getty

Photo Credit: Ethan Miller / Getty

Its the last week of summer and many Americans — including us — are enjoying a bit of a holiday.

While we’re abroad, we are watching the foreign press cover the latest news about Yahoo’s CEO as if it’s simultaneously a business issue, social issue, and celebrity gossip piece all wrapped up in one package. Earlier this week, she announced:

Since my pregnancy has been healthy and uncomplicated and since this is a unique time in Yahoo’s transformation, I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout.

When it comes to Mayer’s pregnancy, people are mainly talking about 4 things:

  1. Whether she should or shouldn’t be taking a longer maternity leave since she is a role model for other working women
  2. Whether other women should compare themselves to her
  3. Whether we should be judging or discussing her choices at all, since we might not do the same for a male CEO who is expecting children
  4. Whether it matters in terms of her performance as CEO

In other words, pretty much everything you can imagine that could be said about this topic has probably been said. Which is one of the reasons we dislike writing about her pregnancy. We also hate writing about it because we want to simply tell Mayer “Congratulations,” and leave it at that. After all, that’s the normal and proper thing to say to anyone who’s just announced news of twins.

But Mayer is not just anyone. She’s a public figure, one of the highest paid CEO’s in America, and one of the youngest and only female CEOs in the technology industry. Like it or not, her personal life is in the spotlight because she is a more glamourous subject than the millions of other women in America who have little choice but to take a couple weeks of maternity leave after they give birth. We can only assume she has made a self-actualized and well-informed decision, realizes the attention is a casualty of her position, and takes all the corresponding criticism in stride.

In the end, we decided to write about her pregnancy because it gives us an opportunity to say that we believe many women — and also men — experience biases and social pressures that make things very hard to be a whole person at work. Being a whole person means different things to different people, but pregnancy is special example simply because its physically impossible to hide, and affects so many people in the workforce.

Even in this day and age, women continue to experience discrimination because they are pregnant, and also subsequently when they become mothers. This is often despite the best intentions of companies and colleagues. These problems are persistent because they are rooted in biases (conscious or not) and cultural ideas of what it means to be an “ideal worker” and truly committed to our work.

However, that doesn’t mean progress can’t be made. We started Fairygodboss because we believe many companies and organizations don’t look closely enough at gender equality in their culture. Transparency is an important step in creating change – and Mayer has been nothing if not transparent. She has shared her own choices very openly (i.e. a short maternity leave and her on-site personal nursery) and announced big changes to Yahoo’s policies (i.e. expanded paid parental leave and restrictions on working-from-home). Whatever you may think of her personal and professional choices, at least we’re talking about things that matter to a great number of working women — and that in many cases, really should change.

Fairygodboss is committed to improving the workplace for women by creating transparency. Join us by signing up at and reviewing your employer.

working women

Maybe Older Women Are the Ones Who Can “Have it All”

If you’ve ever read or discussed the idea of women “having it all”, then you’re probably also familiar with the notion espoused by some women that “you can have it all….”but not at the same time”.

Its somewhat surprising then, that there aren’t many studies or even first-hand accounts of what happens after the intense child-rearing years when family commitments can taper off in a working woman’s life (assuming no responsibilities for elder-care).  Maybe youth-centric media is to blame, but then we saw three articles in the past couple weeks that discussed this exact topic.

The first was a moving “last article” written by a journalist, reflecting on her 27 year career.  While its not a short read, we recommend it for its authentic voice and compelling narrative.  Its the voice of an older woman reflecting back on a career of ups and downs through 1970’s feminism and beyond, while she tried to juggle her family commitments with serious reporting.  She talks about how things have changed — or more importantly, how they have not changed — since the 1960’s when she grew up.  The punchline?  In retirement, she plans on being her first grandchild’s full-time babysitter, in large part so that her own daughter can have better luck balancing her own career and family responsibilities.  She says that she “expected to fall in love with the baby” but

What I did not expect was to find myself, at this stage, with an existential crisis, debating career vs. home life.

Hilary Clinton also recently became a first-time grandmother and the Atlantic decided to pen an article called “Playing the Granny Card” about a small, elite group of women (with Clinton as archetype).  The article puts forth the theory that this group of women might be finding success later in life to be easier because some of the internal difficulties that women face disappear later in life (e.g. family commitments).  External challenges, too, might be easier to deal with as society seems to be “more comfortable” with older, successful women:

An intriguing body of psychological research hints that people of both sexes may feel more comfortable with ambitious older women than with ambitious younger ones.

Its a long article but thought-provoking about some of the realities that women might want to consider in their own careers.

But let’s get back to reality in the workplace.  Are older women good candidates for leadership by other measures, irrespective of social expectations and biases they cannot control?  As it turns out, PriceWaterhouseCooper just released a study suggesting that women “over the age of 55” might be the best leaders for companies undergoing big transformation.  This conclusion was based on a survey of 6,000 European professionals about what qualities would be desirable in a leader of a company that requires huge changes (e.g. in response to technological change, market restructuring, or other industry challenges).  The desired qualities were for:

someone who was likely to have wider experience of settings, people, and also of failure, which engenders humility of perspective and resilience, so that they know what to do when things don’t work

The type of leader these companies need are apparently CEOs who are “open to frank and honest feedback” — a quality that is apparently more associated with older women than older men!

Its intriguing and inspiring to think that maybe this is what it means to “have it all” — and that the last word on the debate really isn’t spoken until a few decades (or more) pass.

working women

“Having It All”

Its summertime and the season for some reflection and relaxation.  At the Aspen Ideas Festival where people are engaging in some of both, the world got another high-profile woman’s take on whether it was possible to “have it all”.  Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo was pretty clear in her answer: no.  In fact, she said the conflicts between being a mother, wife, daughter and CEO were pretty much absolute and reared its head multiple times a day.  She is incredibly charming and you can watch her chat here (start watching the video at 22:00).

In the discussion society has about “having it all”, you hear a wide range of personal anecdotes and understandably strong opinions.  And part of the conversation rejects the question itself, challenging what “having it all” means in the first place.  After all, surveys and research show that most people (including women) tend to believe they have made the right choices, whether its to stay-at-home-with-children, attempt both a career and motherhood, or just choose their own definition of success altogether.  Most people say they would make the same choices again if given a second chance.

So where does this notion of “having it all” come from?  What does the saying even mean?

William Safire wrote a piece over a decade ago suggesting two different meanings/connotations based on common usage of the term: (1) Having everything at once; and (2) Having varied experiences (professional and personal) in stages.  Amusingly, the etymologist ends his exploration of the phrase by saying “I would like to offer greater lexical clarity, but you know what you cannot have.”