I’m going to make a broad sweeping statement which I have no way of backing up, but which feels true for me. And when I share this with other women, it seems to resonate deeply for them too.
I believe women have been sold a lie. That lie is this: in order to be of value in our current world we must be a Superwoman.
As young women, growing up in cultures that celebrate achievement and success, the invitation calls like a Siren.
You can have it all
There is no doubt that we (in the West especially, though not exclusively) are reaping the rewards of the fight our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought. We are no longer confined to the limited role of housewife and mother. And I must say, my gratitude for this is endless. I would have been horrendous confined to these roles without choice.
Never have we had more opportunity. There is a calling for more women in senior leadership, on boards, in politics. Diversity and inclusion are firmly on the agenda in many organisations. More and more organisations are working very hard to retain top female talent.
But they are failing.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, we stopped stepping up, and started burning out. Or at least, we slowed our rush to the top. Women are leaving the workforce at higher rates than ever before[JE1] [JE2] . Especially mothers. Our hard-won gains are seeming to slip away.
Many of us have grown up with parents, teachers, and the media telling us “you can have it all”.
The Siren sings enticingly.
Capable, hopeful girls are encouraged that we can indeed have the career of our dreams, change the world, have a family, fun hobbies, a circle of great girlfriends, be hot and sexy, be the ideal mother, wife, and daughter…. The world is your oyster, we’re told.
The problem is that we interpret this in our developing mindsets as: in order to be of value in the world you must do all of these things. We take the promise that “you can be anything you want” and translate that into “you must be everything of which you can conceive”. And preferably before the age of 35. Perfectly, if you don’t mind. With a touch more gravitas. And make sure everyone has birthday presents and their sports kit on the right day. And don’t you dare be a bossy bitch while you’re at it. Why don’t you just smile more?
And this is how Superwoman is born.
I believe it is this pressure toward Superwoman which is driving our ever -increasing rates of burnout, mental health issues, infertility, and exodus from the workplace.
We live in a culture where we are able to be and do more than our grandmothers ever could, to finally play the lead role in our own lives. But the expectation remains to be every bit the perfect support act, as our grandmothers were. The only way to have it all, it seems, is to become superhuman.
Or opt out.
Anti-Superwoman by choice
Given this dilemma, a number of women choose the opposite. Anti-Superwoman is the quintessential rebellion against Superwoman. When the culture says “to win at this game, you must be Superwoman”, these women say “screw you, I don’t want to play your game”.
In the end, Anti-Superwoman will choose her wellbeing and relationships over any external description of success. And she may indeed be truly happy with that choice.
But I have spoken to many women over the years who feel a calling to step up, to be more, to be of greater service in the world. They see and feel that things need changing. They sense that they have something to offer. But they don’t heed that call because they think the only path to impact is, you guessed it, Superwoman.
Still others end up in a very conflicted place. Sometimes in Superwoman mode, they push themselves hard, working all the hours, handling the juggle, rocking it… then they see the exhaustion on the horizon and slam the breaks on hard. They tip into Anti-Superwoman and spend a period in inactivity, that can feel like procrastination, beating themselves up for not just getting on with it.
So even in choosing not to be Superwoman, women’s behaviour is still driven by avoidance of her.
The bottom line
If you have found yourself keeping close company with Superwoman, or unconsciously avoiding her like the plague- you’re not alone.
And it’s not your fault.
This bi-polar mode of operating is the almost inevitable outcome for so many women in so many cultures around the world.
We simply have not ever learned a more effective way.
What’s been the impact on you?
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