The Myth Of The Corporate Superwoman We Need To Drop
Lately, I started noticing something strange about successful women in my network. Again and again, they would tell me about pushing harder to succeed in impossible work environments with unreasonable bosses, excessive workloads, expectations to be available 24/7, no vacation days and unsupportive colleagues. They would feel trapped and frustrated by these circumstances but instead of leaving, they’d just double on their efforts.
I termed this phenomenon “The Superwoman Complex,” an almost masochistic tendency to sacrifice one’s personal life and wellbeing to prove that one can thrive despite all odds. Throw anything her way and she will get it done.
I have especially observed this in male-dominated environments, where women often face even higher external and internal pressures to prove that they belong there and are just as capable.
The price of proving oneself is often too high. Accepting abusive work terms as a precondition to success leads to stress and burnout. These women often struggle to move from tactical execution to the strategic level thinking required of senior leadership and blame the workload for it.
This gets compounded with a sense of helplessness over failing to achieve impossible goals. Accepting glass cliff assignments – when women are selected to lead companies/projects that are not doing well so that they can be later blamed for their failure – is a particular case of this phenomenon.
The Way Out
Growing as a professional and succeeding as an executive requires setting strong work boundaries.
Let me tell you a little secret here: bosses aren’t always good at optimizing resources. They don’t necessarily understand the effort required to execute a particular task, are unaware of everything that is already on your plate and if similar projects have already been done before by others. Sometimes they invent redundant projects to justify their positions of authority. I had also seen very senior executives overwhelm their teams because they struggled with prioritizing and pushing back on non-critical requests.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, there are several courses of action:
Your job is not to blindly execute everything that comes your way. Instead, you need to manage up by filtering requests and helping your bosses get better results. Not every boss will like this kind of pushback, but he or she is more likely to respect you for it.
Do less and say “No” more: negotiate priorities so you can focus on the most strategic tasks (for example: “Is this urgent? Important? If so, which project should I spend less time on if this one is a higher priority?”). It may seem counterintuitive but pushing back and having fewer random things to work on will give you time to deliver higher quality projects and earn you more credibility. If you find yourself overwhelmed, drop the less impactful projects, someone will eventually pick them up or they will simply go away.
Carve out thinking time: there’s never going to be enough time for strategic thinking when you work in a high-paced environment. Block off time in your schedule to focus on planning for long term goals and developing new ideas. I once met an executive who avoided scheduling internal meetings on Fridays and used the time to connect with external thought leaders and to reflect on her strategic priorities.
Walk away: if your work environment is toxic, there is no shame in giving up and looking for other options. You have to be honest with yourself about the real reason as to why you are sticking around: is this job really worth it or you are trying to prove a point about your resilience? There is no salvation at the end of this yellow brick road. If you are someone who is competent and has a great track record, there are many great opportunities out there that you may be missing in an effort to prove yourself.
It’s not easy to break away from the Superwoman Complex because often this modus operandi is what has fueled one’s success thus far. Nevertheless, if it becomes a barrier, awareness is the first step towards letting go.
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This article was originally published in my column in Forbes Careers.
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