Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Why Is It That Women Can Relate to Failure More Than Success

More than men women tend to want to appear accessible.

One of the criticisms women have lobbied at Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in the wake of her much-discussed book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has been that Sandberg can’t possibly expect to be a realistic role model. Why’s that? It’s because her experiences, written in Lean In from a place of power, are so far from the norm of the majority of women in the workforce that her message gets lost. She’s simply not someone women can relate to.

In Forbes, Meghan Casserly writes that, “For many women, taking workplace advice from Sheryl Sandberg, who earned a salary of nearly $30 million in 2011, is a little like taking ‘basic’ fashion advice from actress Gwyneth Paltrow, whose website GOOP tells me a Stella McCartney tank dress, at $471, is a budget-conscious pick.”

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But women  are often stuck in wanting to take their lessons from women who are just like them. Those lessons are necessarily limited. And limiting. More than men, women tend to want to appear accessible and approachable—just like you, that is—both as bosses and as friends. Expectations for female behavior traditionally, and enduringly, value modesty and collaboration. Women don’t want to be perceived as different. Those qualities aren’t always the same ones that help women get ahead in the world. In the name of being someone to whom others can relate women tend to downplay their professional achievements, and studies have found this can result in women who are less likely to speak up than men, less likely to proactively manager their own careers, and less likely to ask for more money.

Hollywood helps promote the charm of the struggling woman on television. Shows like Two Broke Girls, Modern Family, and How I Met Your Mother promote gender stereotypes in the name of creating characters women can relate to. Though the men in these shows are successful, the female leads are often unemployed or underemployed. Even the relatively accomplished characters in Big Bang Theory don’t quite measure up to their male counterparts. Female lead Bernadette is a microbiologist, but she’s also a waitress.

Struggle is undeniably universal, and even successful women—most likely especially successful women—have faced certain challenges. But maybe they haven’t lingered in them. Struggle and underachievement aren’t—or shouldn’t be—the only models for relating. What women need is to shift the perspective, and make not just the flaws relatable but also the successes.

How to do it:

Self-promote. Stop shying away from talking about your achievements both at home and at work. Take credit for a job well done. Share victories with friends. Make success something that distinguishes you but doesn’t alienate you, and do this by owning it, not apologizing for it, and including others in it.

Cheerlead. Sponsoring—advocating to  get somebody a job or promotion, mentioning their name in a meeting, actively helping that person advance—is what makes the real difference in women helping women get ahead. It also helps promote the idea of success as something that can be achieved together, in collaboration with a group.

Acknowledge. Research, including studies out of Cornell, has long found that women and girls, more than men and boys, tend to underrate their own performance. Taking the time to acknowledge your accomplishments will help make the idea of success something that’s perfectly within the norm. Success can be noteworthy, but it needn’t be shocking. When achievement becomes expected, that’s when the real success has been attained.

 

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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