Despite the fact that women make up over half the workforce, few climb higher than middle-management positions to ascend to C-suite positions (CEO, CFO, COO).
Wendy Wallbridge, author of Spiraling Upward: The 5 Co-Creative Powers for Women on the Rise, says that one of the reasons is because women have a different path to success than that followed by men.
Women, Wallbridge argues, rarely have a straight-and-narrow roadmap to the top. The reason, she says, is because women define success differently than men. The traditional career path, she argues, is linear in shape and was created by men who pursued power for the sake of power. Women, she argues, struggle to find success on this linear path and have instead forged their own cyclical path–one that allows women to define success in more holistic terms of personal fulfillment rather than power. “Women want to lead lives that are fulfilled,” says Wallbridge.
The traditional horizontal life path, which Wallbridge describes as getting good grades in school, graduating with honors, getting a good job, a life partner and a nice house is oriented around getting all A’s–accolades, acquisitions, achievement, and approval. This drive to get ahead, she says, comes from a sense of insufficiency–feeling like we’re not enough, that we haven’t achieved enough. The desire to prove ourselves worthy, she says, is externally motivated. This is the “I’ll show them what I can do” attitude. This power struggle is extremely motivating to men, and can be motivating to women early in their careers as well, but Wallbridge argues this external motivation has a short shelf life for women.
“We get to a certain point in our career, and it’s often in the childbearing years, where the motivation that got us to where we are runs out,” she says. What replaces that externally oriented motivation is a desire for personal and professional fulfillment. “If we use that inflection point to really look deeper at what it is that we’re here for, what really matters to us, and try to sculpt a path that is oriented toward what calls to us–even if it’s just values of the people we work with, or projects we pick inside the company–we get connected to this whole other motivation that’s more like inspiration that doesn’t run out. It doesn’t require that we ‘lean in’ because we’re naturally called and we can go on forever because we’re excited.”
Wallbridge is speaking from experience. In her 20s, at a time when she was forging ahead and moving up the linear career ladder, she developed lupus, a life-threatening blood disease, and could no longer live up to the type A self-image she thought she needed to have in order to continue her ascent. “I was driven and continuing to go, go, go, but not really feeling like it was ever enough,” she says. When she awoke one morning and was unable to move, she realized she had to find another way to define success.
Rather than the constant self-criticism she’d put herself through previously, she discovered she could find more meaningful success by throwing away the goal-oriented mind-set and decide to live fully, embracing her strengths of collaboration, empathy, humility, flexibility, and connectivity.
“Women are not as productivity-centric as men,” says Wallbridge. Women, she argues, get fulfillment from relationships, family, the community, and the difference we make in the world. “Women have evolved from the ego-centric power of competing with others (and have come to discover success by) rising to power within yourself–coming into possession and expression of your own gifts so that you can fulfill your potential,” she says.
Whereas on the linear path, success is defined by a set of goals that get achieved one after the other as stepping-stones to a larger goal; the cyclical path is focused on small steps that are defined more by values than a lofty goal such as becoming a CEO. The linear path, says Wallbridge, is the never-ending pursuit of the next step.
“You reach a goal, you don’t really celebrate it at all, you just move on to the next step,” she says. It’s the interruptions along the way–such as the birth of a child, or being let go from a company–that gives us the opportunity to reflect on who we are and what will provide us with fulfillment.