Women may be making strides in every area of civic life these days, but it’s often accompanied by a sense of disbelief. How does she do it? Clearly, she can’t have it all.
Or maybe she can. Of course, whether or not an individual woman can achieve all she wants to professionally while balancing it with her personal and family lives remains up to her individual choices and how she defines success, just as it does for men, but somehow we seem to scrutinize women more closely. Women can’t have it all, Anne-Marie Slaughter dismally penned in her 2012 Atlantic cover story. Others such as author Laura Vanderkam say not only that women can but also “I know how she does it.”
A lot of women can do it all, as it turns out, but not on their own. Asking for help is an essential part of reaching success. The struggle, though, is that asking for help proves difficult for many of us.
At Women in the World’s seventh annual summit this year, Slaughter, who is now CEO of the DC-based think tank New America, added her latest two cents on having it all—and how it's necessarily linked to accepting help. Slaughter explained that the help and support you receive as woman is all about the expectations you set for those around you. In short, if you don’t ask for help, you won’t get any.
Echoing Slaughter, Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, said at the summit: “I don’t believe women help women enough. I think we have to change our whole approach to supporting each other, taking advice from each other, seeking it out. Let’s figure out how we can help each other way more than we are today.”
Nooyi went on to highlight the significance of support over competition among women. Nooyi and Slaughter, who are also wives and mothers, are among the few women in CEO positions. Focusing their discussion on juggling the responsibilities of care and career, they agreed that support is essential.
But often women feel pressure to perform amazingly in all tasks, do it all by themselves, and make it look effortless. According to statistics released this year by the U.S. Department of Labor, 67.6 percent of married women with children under 18 participate in the work force. This large majority which constitutes the “working mom” often find themselves unsuccessfully juggling a career and the care of their family. In an attempt to obtain it all—and be perfect at it all—women often end up shouldering more than they can handle.
“We’ve had centuries of expectations of women’s roles, and they’re all around child-rearing, home-keeping and husband maintenance,” said Deborah Spar, president of Barnard College and author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. “We added to those expectations the opportunities for women to enter the workforce, but we never really, societally, rejiggered what women were supposed to do at home.”
As Spar indicates, the expanding definition of a woman’s role has created more opportunities at the same time as it has increased expectations. In our society that preaches independence and individualism, the value of helping one another has been overshadowed by a fear of weakness and an inability to achieve feats alone. But of course, this thinking doesn’t do anyone good, since asking for help is essential to reaching one's goals.
Not being willing to ask for help also hurts women when it comes to healthy development and vulnerability. The humility to ask for help is not only a virtue, it turns out; it's important for mental health. “The refusal to ask for help is a kind of arrogance, a blind insistence on doing it all by yourself no matter what,” author Greg Levoy explains for Psychology Today, “because along with it comes the message that no one’s help is worth the price in vulnerability it will cost you, that ultimately no one can console you or ease your pain, and no one is that strong if you yourself aren’t.”
But the truth is the opposite of these fears. A 2014 Harvard Business School study revealed that individuals who ask for help are perceived as more competent than those who opt to tackle projects alone. Additionally, the study concluded that seeking help serves to build stronger relationships, foster better health and generate problem-solving ideas.
As hard as we try to be superwomen, the reality of our humanness will always come back to remind us of our limitations. Knowing when it’s just too much to handle is an important step in maintaining sanity, not to mention achieve the goals we actually want most.
As more accomplished women like these come forward explaining the role help plays in their success, I hope we’ll see the pressure for women to do it all on their own, and without breaking a sweat, slowly melt away. If, one woman at a time, we can put aside stubborn individualism for a moment, ask for, and accept help, we might find that, while perfection remains unattainable, a life tailored to our personal goals and dreams can be achieved. And that, really, is everything.
Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan