High-Achieving Women Need More Than a Bubble Bath

High-achieving women stress, think, and work differently

Posted Dec 07, 2011

Last week, I reconnected with two outstanding women. The first, a human resources executive I know from a law firm I worked at; and the second, a talented attorney I worked with several years ago. We caught up with each others' lives, and I told them about my next business venture. I told them how frustrated I felt about the quality of resources available to high-achieving women looking for practical strategies for dealing with stress, burnout, and work/life issues. I explained that much of what I find either borders on therapy or is what I call "fluff." Very few folks seem to understand or tailor advice to what high-achieving, driven women really experience on a daily basis. Without hesitating, both women said, "Exactly! People seem to think all we need is a bubble bath!"

They each discussed the guilt they feel working late hours which means less time spent with their kids. We talked about the difficult challenges women lawyers and women in different business settings face regularly. In addition, each of these women have made the tough decision that they will work while their spouses stay home with the kids, an arrangement that is not the norm for many working women.

So what makes a woman "high-achieving?" Dr. Harriet Braiker describes it as, "A psychological state... describing any woman with multiple roles who desires to excel in those roles. The phrase refers to characteristic ways of thinking about achievement." (1) It's not about your socioeconomic status or how high you've climbed up the corporate ladder; but instead, it's a way of thinking about excellence and achievement.

Other high-achieving behaviors and characteristics include (2):

1. A Drive to excel and seek new challenges
2. Competitive
3. Serious
4. Feeling like you can handle everything on your own
5. Perseverance
6. Highly responsive
7. Risk takers (within carefully defined limits)
8. Recognition for performance
9. Passionate about work

These powerful behaviors and characteristics are a double-edged sword for most high-achieving women. What accounts for so much of their success is responsible for so much negative stress. Striving for excellence is great until you expect yourself and others to be perfect. Feeling like you can handle everything is wonderful until you find yourself at work until 10pm most nights and are unable to appropriately delegate. Being highly responsive is appreciated by clients but becomes negative when you put pressure on yourself to answer emails at all hours of the day and night. Continuing to achieve requires risk taking, but if you only take risks that are 100% safe and predictable, you might be missing out on a wonderful opportunity. In addition, high-achievers often feel a tremendous amount of guilt. How many times have you wondered whether you're spending too much time at work? Not enough time with your family?

In addition, the very traits that cause companies to hire high-achieving women are the very traits that companies fail to manage or don't know how to manage appropriately. As a result, high-achieving women take their talents elsewhere. Research by Dr. Marcia Reynolds indicates that high-achieving women look for the following five things at work:

1. Frequent new challenges to stretch their talents and grow;
2. Flexible schedules;
3. The opportunity to collaborate and work with other high-achievers;
4. Recognition from the company; and
5. Freedom to be themselves.

So bubble baths, while great, aren't going to help high-achievers manage their stress long term, and self-help strategies along those lines aren't going to help companies retain these talented women. We have a unique opportunity to create a better discussion about how to help high-achieving women thrive in life and work. Will you join me?


1. Braiker, H. (2006). The type E* woman: How to overcome the stress of being *everything to everybody. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc., p. xi.

2. The list of characteristics and behaviors exhibited by high-achieving women was compiled from the following sources:

DeLong, T.J., & DeLong, S. (2011, June). Managing yourself: The paradox of excellence. Retrieved December 2, 2011, from http://hbr.org/2011/06/managing-yourself-the-paradox-of-excellence/ar/1.

Reynolds, M. (2010). Wander woman: How high-achieving women find contentment and direction. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.