For women in 2017, the constraints of what it means to be successful are changing. But we need to push harder, talk more, shout more about why success can’t be labelled and put in a box.
What does it mean to be a successful woman in 2017? There are as many answers to this question as there are women, so it seems every answer never quite hits the nail on the head, whether in an article, in conversation or scrolling through Twitter feeds. It’s a question our female team all gave different answers to, yet when I googled this, the first page of results was full of articles about how to achieve career success. It’s true: for so long, success has had a terribly confining definition; it was a loaded term largely used by the corporate world to measure how good you were at your job. To be a truly successful woman, it seemed you had to be the next Sheryl Sandberg. And yes, career achievements are one way to define success, but when the IMAGE team spoke about it, not one mentioned theirs as the reason they felt successful.
And it’s because the idea of success is such a personal one. My idea of being a successful woman isn’t the same as yours. But society will push upon you a ‘success metric’ – career, husband, children – leaving you feeling decidedly unsuccessful if you haven’t ticked each item off. Our comparison culture amplifies the problem. We see our fellow women achieving great things (often via a filter), and it can shadow our own goals, and leave us feeling inadequate. And then there’s The Fear. The fear you’ll be judged if you’re not as successful as Lisa next door. But there’s a shift happening. I’m seeing more and more women speak about success differently; the language has changed. It isn’t always about being Top Dog in the office. A recent Woman’s Hour poll found that our top motivation for career success is self-respect. We’re putting ourselves – and our needs – before a societal checklist.
For example, I want to be great at my job, but I’m happy to be what Rosamond Pike deemed “a no.2.” In an interview with The Guardian, Pike acknowledged that on the set of Gone Girl, Ben Affleck was number one on the call sheet, even though she was on equal footing with him. “I’m quite comfortable being No 2. I quite like that place. I don’t know that I’m that easy with being No 1.” She shrugged. “I suppose you feel there’s somewhere to go. It’s an interesting question. I haven’t analysed why.”
But I think this is far from true. I think she, having have made a thorough list of the pros and cons of being Number One above the Ben Affleck’s in her life, really thought about it and decided that being the best ALL THE TIME wasn’t for her. But it doesn’t make her any less of a success. Like Pike, I’ve always been more comfortable being a right-hand woman. I like being the reliable one and I’ll always aim to excel, but I’m not sure at this stage of my life I could handle the pressure that comes with being an Editor comfortably. But do I feel I’ve failed? On the contrary, I feel like personally, I’m much more of a success for going out and achieving my personal goals, even as a no.2.
And yes, we do have a problem with women withdrawing from success because they don’t feel entitled to it – another huge conversation entirely – but there are just as many who don’t need to force themselves into the confining definition of success in order to feel truly accomplished. Not everyone needs to be The Best. You don’t need to win every award. Maybe you’re the Adele who wants to give back recognition to the woman (in this case, Beyoncé) who you feel was overlooked. Or maybe success means finally buying the designer bag you never thought would be yours. And that’s every bit as valid a success as being CEO.
As a woman with Cerebral Palsy, my definition of success was to make it to thirty without being confined to a wheelchair because I value my independence over everything else. I’ll be thirty this August. Yes, it’s been tough and a struggle (and I’ve had to literally learn how to walk again more than once) but I’ve done that. In what is a combination of perseverance, a lot of help and luck, my mobility is reasonable and the chair only comes out once in a while. So, in my eyes, I did it, and everything else under the success umbrella is just an added bonus.
The trouble is, we’re so used to the idea of a ‘success checklist’, that we’re failing to acknowledge that every achievement we feel proud of – small or large – makes us successful women in our own right. It isn’t about having or doing X, Y or Z, it’s about you feeling happy to do X, Y and Z in the order you choose, or not at all. Success isn’t a one-size-fits-all label; it’s ever-changing and dependent on the person you are and want to grow into.
So maybe you’ll never get to break one of your 15 Grammys and share it with Beyoncé, but you’re here, you’re you, and you’re trying your very best. This is despite the inequality, sexism and daily battle that comes along with being a woman in 2017.
You’re doing all The Things, so wear your success t-shirt proudly.