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Defining The “All” In “Having It All”

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What should be evaluated critically is the definition of “all”.

By Leah Eichler (Contributing Writer, Femme-O-Nomics)

Can women have it all? It’s a question that repeatedly creeps up in this ongoing dialogue on women and careers. I frequently encounter contemporaries who believe it’s the duty of women in their 30s and 40s to warn this next generation that they cannot “have it all.” They fret about new graduates who are certain their future holds generous salaries, lofty titles, a partner with the same and maybe even kids in private school by the time they hit their mid-30s.

I never want to quash those dreams. I entertained them myself at one point and still believe the possibility exists for those up for the challenge and willing to make personal sacrifices.

What should be evaluated more critically is that definition of “all”, which I interpret as synonymous with success. Externally, one’s salary and job title present obvious markers of career success. Internally, many men and women may possess an alternate understanding of success. Reconciling the two is no easy feat.

“You can ‘have it all,’ but sometimes not “all” at once,” observed Lisa Heidman, senior client partner and North American director of Bedford Legal at the Bedford Consulting Group, a global executive search firm.

Ms. Heidman, who also acts as an advisor and coach to board and C-level clients, often encourages senior executives, as well as up-and-coming talent to be clear about what drives them and what they uniquely have to offer both professionally and personally. She believes that success can be found when an individual’s drive and skill set is strategically aligned with an organization and its business drivers, values and culture.

She also warns against fixating on a singular definition of career success, or to define oneself by someone else’s definition. “There isn’t one answer for everyone. There are always choices and compromises. What’s important is to make these decisions consciously, and to also respect and support the many choices we make as women in our individual and collective career paths,” she added.

Perhaps it’s not the recent graduates that need to be taught the meaning of success. Maybe they have it right and we’re too jaded to recognize the change.

Dr. Julia Richardson, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at York University’s School of Human Resource Management regularly asks her students to define career success. Although some speak of it in terms of scaling to the top of an organization, many students — specifically the women — often hold a broader view.

For them, success includes factors such as their happiness with their family life, making a contribution to society and possessing a job they really enjoy.

Dr. Richardson muses that perhaps this expanded view of success derives from watching their parents work tremendously long hours to afford a certain lifestyle, forcing them to question if that’s what they really want.

There is some data to back up the observation that women, even if they earn less than men, find more meaning in their work. PayScale, a company that mines global online compensation data, culled responses from 30,000 U.S. workers, which showed that women were more likely than men to say their job made the world a better place. While pay level played a more important role for men, they also admitted to longer commutes, meaning they sacrificed more for that paycheck.

Although it sounds wonderful that these women find their work so fulfilling, I worry that some who claim to have a broader sense of success are merely falling prey to cognitive dissonance. They can’t obtain the level of success they originally aspired to so they veer toward external markers of success that are more readily available.

“I don’t think they are necessarily kidding themselves in anyway,” argued Dr. Richardson, acknowledging that it may prove difficult to maintain one’s internal vision of success when it collides with the opinions of family and peers.

Barbara Stewart, portfolio manager with Cumberland Private Wealth Management Inc.. appears to have reconciled her inner goals with external markers of career success by associating herself with a firm that offers her freedom and allows her to explore her intellectual curiosity.

While managing clients with a minimum of $1 million in investible assets, Ms. Stewart also carved out the time to research the financial lives of women around the world, exploring how the message they received growing up about money impacted their behaviour and level of confidence.

“For me, being successful is having the freedom to live all parts of myself…It’s up to me how I work, when I work, where I work,” explained Ms. Stewart. “Producing revenue is the bottom line but it’s up to me to decide the best way to do that.”

This post was originally published at Femmeonomics.

About the guest blogger: Leah Eichler is the Co-Founder of Femme-O-Nomics, a networking application and content portal for professional women. She is also a well-known columnist on issues surrounding women in the workplace. Follow her on Twitter at @femmeonomics.