The price of being a superwoman

From Valor Economico

I want to point out right away that this text was not written based on any research or statistics. Nor was there any psychological study. It is based solely on observations: my observations. What probably qualifies these observations is that I listen, and I listen a lot!

Working in executive search, I probably interview about 500 people a year. About a third of these are women. Most of them have had an excellent education, almost all of them work or have worked for major corporations. They are all extremely smart and have an excellent career path. These are women who are, or could be, CEOs of major Brazilian or multinational corporations or members of a Board of Directors. Something else they have in common, and the central theme of this discussion, is the daily pressure to perform well. When I say perform I am not only talking about their professional side, but also perform as mothers, companions, daughters, friends… We could expand this list to include other roles that seem to be increasingly essential to the superwoman all of us should aspire to be: top model, athlete, childhood education expert, travel agent and nutritionist, to name a few.

My conversations with these executives have focused almost entirely on their careers and their behaviors in the professional environment. But it is only natural that, as the conversation evolves, we get to know each other better, and aspects of their personal life that have impacted their work choices are also discussed. What impresses me is that to a large extent, this pressure is self-imposed. Of course there are the demands of our bosses, spouses, companions and children. But the expectations we have for ourselves are generally far higher than any corporate target! I am not saying we should not be ambitions, take on leadership positions or care for our families. Thanks to our determination and ambitions we have women leading countries and corporations, increasing their contribution to all sectors of activities. But exceeding a sales target, increase return on investment, make sure the house is clean, resist the urge to just give the children an iPad to entertain themselves rather than educate, take the dog to the vet, and still have to eat nothing but salad and green juice to fit into a size 4 jeans (or is it size 2 now?) is tiring. It’s exhausting!

Maybe I’m mistaken, but I believe this self-imposed pressure is much more a characteristic of women than it is of men. Men demand a lot of themselves in terms of their professional success, the combination of power and financial gains. Here I believe men suffer more than women, and are under greater pressure from their peers. But in other areas, in particular the demands of their personal lives, they are not so demanding on themselves. Men feel much less guilty about arriving late for a presentation at a child’s school, or canceling dinner with the in-laws, or being overweight.

Furthermore, men admire and celebrate the achievements of their peers quite a bit more. As a rule, women are their own worst critics in all dimensions, and tend to be very critical of each other. Women who work long hours outside the home are criticized by those who stay at home for not spending enough time with their families. Women who do not work outside the home are criticized by women who do for having no ambition and being dependent on their husbands. This makes me think that we need more solidarity, the lack of which can increase the use of the derogatory labels we hate so much: princess, career driven, futile, aggressive and so many others.

I recently read an interview with writer Camille Paglia. Although I find her comments to be extreme at times, I agree with her when she says that women believe they must be successful and the way of life they choose is very stressful. Three recent conversations I had with successful women are evidence of this. These conversations were permeated with anxiety and self-expectations along numerous dimensions. In the first of these a successful executive with a multinational told me how much she had wanted to accept a position abroad that she had declined, believing it would be better to bring up her children in constant contact with the extended family. She believes she missed out on a major career opportunity and felt devastated. In the second, a former executive with a wonderful family was worried that conversation between her and her husband was limited to domestic topics and he would no longer find her interesting. The solution was to return to corporate world. I asked her if she wanted to return to work. She was emphatic: “No! I love my life the way it is now! I would much rather be with my children than at work!” And finally in the third conversation, an executive told me about a very successful colleague who had decided to become a nun as she had received a “calling”. Although finding it hard to understand the friend, the executive let go with: “Imagine how liberating it must be not to have to worry about being overweight, if you will get the client or if the competition will be better than you are, or even have to explain why you are single at 40!”

After seeing this common thread through so many conversations with so many outstanding women, I felt it worthwhile to make my own statement. I don’t have the solution to change this outlook. Even I find myself defining target after target, goal after goal to be achieved, entering this same vicious circle. However, I believe we can try to be a bit more caring and supportive of each other. We should foster our female team spirit, and accept more our differences and our choices. Tear down hypotheses and assumptions we create without doing the research required to check if these are real or if they are merely expectations and goals we have imposed on ourselves. We must especially find time to celebrate our achievements more, and enjoy those things about which we worried so much and fought so hard to achieve. Then it is worth while to start all over again.

Ângela Antonioli Pêgas is a Partner with Egon Zehnder and the leader of the Leadership Development Practice in Brazil. This article was first published in Valor Economico and is republished on this website with kind permission of the magazine.

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