It’s easy to pin the blame – if blame it is – on women for tripping themselves up, holding themselves back, for creating their own glass ceiling at work and not sufficiently ‘leaning in’. It’s a mean and rather vicious spin of an old age story of individual women being responsible for their fate as though that fate takes place outside of a context, a historical and psychological moment that shapes their longings and the conflicts that intersect with them.
Of course we are all somewhat responsible for our fate but women are not a different species than other human beings. They don’t spring fully born into the world with every opportunity and every pore tuned to climb to the top. They arrive at adulthood following a long apprenticeship in what it means to be a woman.
From their earliest days they will have been observing and interacting with the women who raised them, who nurtured and guided them, who scolded them, who showed them how to be, who taught them their spelling and arithmetic and told them about the world and its wonders, and read or made up stories about girls and what they could be doing. They had women teachers and aunts and parents and siblings who will sometimes have encouraged them and other times thwarted them, implying that certain activities were off limits and others prized. Raised in a family, they will have watched the ‘mothering’ person(s) manage her own life and absorbed the moods and the tensions which have gone along with that.
As they dreamt about their lives to come they will have found role models from the worlds of fashion, politics, movies, literature, TV, medicine, sports, and science. They would have tasted some of these identities in their mouths, trying them on for size and feel. And if they weren’t ridiculed while fantasizing, they will have put those together with their other desires such as wanting to fly to the moon, write a hit tune, be the belle of the ball and find the love of their life.
So far so good. So far so normal. Only normal isn’t normal anymore. The rules are being rewritten. Normal isn’t seen as good enough. Only extraordinary and out there and awesome seem to count. Working well, being a good enough partner and parent are somehow being characterized as insufficiently ambitious, as being an ‘oh-so-last-century’ woman.
But is it true? As she observed her own mother working and caring, as she saw the frustrations and pleasures that life brought, as she took on the ambitions Mum had for her and her siblings and counted her own, she may have rejected the idea that she had to be the next Sheryl Sandberg, Mary Portas, Susan Greenberg, Shami Chakrabati or Marjorie Blackman. She may have admired these women and appreciated their voices in the world but she may have thought, what’s most important to me is what I do. I don’t have to be them. I can do my work, my relationships, my family well enough for me.
Paradoxically and cruelly, the notion that you’re inadequate if you are not right up there achieving every minute and besting everyone is infiltrating women’s sense of herself. It is inducing feelings that they should be doing more. Along with having to have the perfect body, perfect partner, perfect home, perfect hostess skills, perfect children, the capacity to flourish is being undermined and it is no wonder that when surveys ask women about their accomplishments, they set them in terms of their failures, not in terms of their satisfactions.
Certainly many women are frustrated by the glass ceiling. There’s the internal one that stops them feeling sufficiently entitled and legitimate to dare to go for what they want. There’s the inner worry that moving ahead might cut one off from other women leaving the individual to feel isolated or as though she is sticking out too prominently. Certainly many women are frustrated by the actual and not so subtle discriminations at work which favor long hours with scant regards to responsibilities at home. Certainly some have unhelpful bosses, who like to promote people who they see as similar to them (yes, men). Then again sometimes female bosses are threatened or harsh and seem to close the drawbridge after them. Certainly the style of many workplaces is too macho to make a woman who had confidence going in, feel anything but wobbly about a personal style which may be less confrontational than the culture at work.
There are many reasons why women don’t progress as they either imagined they would or desired to. I come across many women in their late sixties who led the charge into the formally male bastions and who may well have been the best person for the foreign correspondents job or the leader of the orchestra or the engineering group but somehow, they just weren’t chosen. The ones who did ‘make it’ were the exception. Often when they did make it, they did so in institutions a little less rigid like publishing or family businesses.
The women in their twenties and thirties and forties are the children of these women as well as the women who didn’t go into the workforce. Whatever their mother’s stories and whatever their mothers conveyed about the importance of having a good job, the daughters couldn’t have helped but absorb the unstated views and feelings of their mothers who lived their own experiences. A mother’s overt ambition and support for her daughter will always be shaded by what the girl has herself picked up about mother’s own experience. These felt experiences would have formed a template for what was possible for the daughter herself. What an individual feels is doable for her sense of self, is formed early on in childhood. It doesn’t mean she won’t challenge the multiple and confusing messages she’s taken in. Of course she will. We all do, but we do so with the history of our moment which still despite all the advances has not quite made women hosts in the workplace.
By Susie Orbach
Susie Orbach is a psychoanalyst and writer. Her many books on women’s psychology include Understanding Women, What Do Women Want and Between Women, love, competition, envy and anger.