The Magazine

A Delicate Balance

How professional women meet the needs of life and work.

Oct 5, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 03 • By SABRINA L. SCHAEFFER
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Write Your Own Rules for Success

by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay

HarperBusiness, 256 pp., $27.99

Somewhere between Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" and today, the modern feminist movement came to be defined by a legislative wish list. "Hear me roar" no longer; hear me demand a government handout. Government legislation such as the FMLA, Lily Ledbetter Act, and Paycheck Fairness Act has become the leading source of power for women--or at least for women's organizations.

But Reddy's song might be ready to make a comeback, according to the authors of Womenomics, a self-help guide for professional women trying to balance high-powered careers with everyday life. Senior national correspondent for Good Morning America Claire Shipman and BBC Washington Correspondent and news reader Katty Kay tell us, without qualification, that "women have power" and that it is, in part, because we now occupy vital positions "in numbers too big to ignore."

When the authors write about power, they are not referring to a new bill. According to Shipman and Kay, women have real, hard-earned, measurable power that allows them "to stop juggling and struggling" and start finding a balance that fits their lifestyle. This female muscle, they claim, starts with knowing the facts. Readers might not be aware, for instance, that companies that employ more women make more money. Women account for more than half of the educated workforce. And women buy a lot of things. Employers, therefore, need female brainpower.

Knowledge of one's worth leads to confidence. Confidence in that worth leads to power. And power gets you what you want. But what do women want? The core of the book revolves around this and other questions regarding lifestyle choices and options, with the authors walking readers through several chapters of pop psychology to figure out what women really want.

This introspection reaches its crescendo with the "Womenomics Gut Check"--a brutally honest list of questions aimed at helping women determine where they place the most value in their life: "How much of the way you work is about satisfying your ego?" "Are you prepared to give up money to get more time?" "Would having more time to devote to family or yourself make a difference in your life?"

What emerges from this analysis is a subtle and unstated recognition that the modern feminist movement failed in many ways. Yes, women have shattered the ceiling in politics, medicine, law, media, and corporate America. But many women still find themselves unhappy (and unsuccessful) trying to balance the high expectations of corporate America with family--or just life.

And then the authors come out and say it: "We actually don't want to make it to the very top of the ladder," Shipman and Kay write, "if it costs us so much else in our lives." They add, "We have discovered we'd prefer a New All; a tapestry of family and work in which we define our own success in reasonable terms." By no means does this "New All" suggest a return to the pre-Feminine Mystique world. But, were she alive today, Betty Friedan might be uncomfortable with their claim that men and women are different--and want different things.

The authors are not blind to the friction between our "pioneering feminist forebears" and women today. "Many women may understand they are not working according to their own true goals," they write, "but they still don't take action--because that would mean pushing through a thicket of ego, financial, and even feminist barricades."

Professional women, they claim, maintain a complicated relationship with the feminists of the 1970s and '80s, "part gratitude, part admiration, part guilt, part rejection." And it's the rejection part that they use to make readers feel it's okay not to take the promotion.

Despite pages of casual jargon, personal stories, and some self-help psychobabble (at which even the authors poke fun) the heart of this book remains in the important and deeply American tradition of self-improvement. Not quite The Education of Henry Adams, or even The Americanization of Edward Bok, but a refreshing look at how women can use their education, expertise, and success to get more flexibility in their jobs and get control over their lives. And Shipman and Kay are candid about which women they're talking about. This is for educated, relatively high-earning career women.

Many of us are lucky. As professional women we often do have choices, even if they don't seem easy or obvious. It helps to remember that fact on days when the juggle seems too much. We have options less fortunate women can only dream of.

But they restrain themselves from taking this observation one step further. Nowhere do they push for greater government protections; in fact, while I anticipated at least a plug for the re-introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment in their epilogue, I was met with something quite different. They spend the final pages recounting the many different ways corporations have adopted flexible work plans that meet the needs of all their employees.

"Companies increasingly realize that what's important is what you produce, not how, where, and when you do it," they write. In short, the market is playing a vital role in directing employer-employee relations. And fortunately, this is increasingly becoming the case for the broad middle class of women, not just the lucky elite. If you're good at your job, and your employer would feel your loss, you have leverage.

Still, a few questions linger in my mind: Would Womenomics have received the same level of praise from women in the corporate and media worlds had it been written by Laura Ingraham and Megyn Kelly? Did this shift in the discussion have to come from the center-left? And does it matter where it comes from if it reflects a pivotal shift in the way society views women and women view themselves?

For too long, the assumption has been that society is hostile to women and that women are victims in need of government protection. And yet today, it seems, the outdated image of the activist feminist has been replaced by a new ideal: the self-empowering woman. That's not to say women are the same as men, or that they don't need men. Quite the opposite: Simply that victimology has become passé.

My first job in Washington was as an assistant to the former United Nations ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. The first woman to serve in this cabinet post, a professor at Georgetown, wife, and mother of three sons, she clearly helped tear down some walls of her own. What I remember most from my experience with Jeane Kirkpatrick, however, has little to do with foreign affairs. One day, in her office, she said to me: "Women can do anything they want--just not everything at the same time."

I suspect Shipman and Kay would agree.

Sabrina L. Schaeffer, a visiting fellow with the Independent Women's Forum, is a managing partner of Evolving Strategies.