'Inspirational' stories of 'successful' women can hurt

I recently received an email from a reader that left me wondering if reading about the successful careers of women can sometimes feel similar to seeing those photographs of impossibly beautiful women in magazines.

Like portraits that have been airbrushed to perfection, there are stories that have been twisted and tailored to offer the ultimate in "success". We hear about the outcomes – with a few mistakes, failures and all-time lows thrown in for colour -- but not always the day-to-day reality of their lives.

And so they seem impossible. They're incredibly brilliant women who float between life and work and manage to stay fit, healthy and happy at the same time.

Yet impossible as they seem, we can't help but compare ourselves. If only we worked harder, ate less, exercised more, slept five hours instead of seven and developed more confidence, we too could be like them.

We don't always see the full story of what's going on behind the scenes: the support they have, the help they pay for, and the initial leg up they may have received. We rarely hear stories of these women collapsing in a heap on the couch, wondering how they're going to get up of a morning, or breaking down in the bathroom between meetings.

The reader, who I've since been in contact with, asked if we could share more stories regarding a "lack of success". Working part-time after coming off maternity leave, she shared that she couldn't imagine positioning herself for a promotion or starting a new business right now. She's not motivated to do so, she wrote; she has a "job" over a "career" and she'd like to be reminded that she's not alone.

As she said: "There are those of us out here who are still connected to the world (interested in politics, business, current affairs, etc) but who really aren't setting the world on fire ourselves."

It bothered me that she'd make such a statement. I couldn't see anything "unsuccessful" about raising a child and working part-time. And surely "setting the world on fire" is all relative? We can all make as much of a difference to other people's lives within our own family or community as the most lauded businesswomen of the world can do.

But it's easy to forget this. Most of us live hour to hour, day to day. We work hard, look after others, and do what we can to find the motivation to stay healthy. And then we sit back and read a profile of a "successful" woman and start to compare ourselves.

Recently, I attended the Telstra Business Women's Awards where each of the winners got up and told a little bit of their story. It was one of those occasions in which somebody not "setting the world on fire" with a particularly brilliant business idea could easily reflect from the audience and think, "what have I done?"

And yet the thing that was particularly refreshing about this evening was that a number of the winners got up and talked about their failures, as well as their success. They shared how unlikely their stories may have seemed, even just a short time ago, as well as the help and support they've had along the way. They talked about how hard they've had to work, the things they've had to sacrifice, and the fact they were well aware the so-called success they have now could easily disappear tomorrow.

Nobody's flawlessly successful. Some just chose to share more than others.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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