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The One Way Women Can Stress Less at Work

The author of 'Wonder Women' says it all comes down to "satisficing"

posted by Kerry Hannon, October 3, 2013 More by this author

Woman stressed at work

Kerry Hannon has spent more than 25 years covering personal finance for Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.


Woman stressed at work
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Here’s a new word for you: satisficing. At least it’s new to me. And it may be a word midlife women need to become comfortable with to manage their careers and lower their stress.
 
Satisficing is an economics term that might best be translated as "a combination of cutting corners and settling for second best,” writes Debora Spar, in her new bestseller, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.
 
The Fallacy of Having It All

Spar, 50, who is also president of Barnard College, is a fervent advocate of this tactic. In Wonder Women, she writes that one message women took away from the battles for equal rights in the ‘60s and ‘70s was that they could and should have it all — perfect families, high-level jobs, incredible bodies and more. But, the married mother of three says, it’s not possible.

(MORE: How Women Should Plot Their Careers After 50)

What’s more, she provocatively asserts, women of all ages (including those in their 50s and 60s who’ve hit a wall on their climb to the top of the work pyramid) need to accept reality and stop whining and male bashing.
 
“It’s not as if evil men are sitting in the corner offices plotting ways to keep women from gaining more ground,” Spar writes. “On the contrary, most major corporations now — along with hospitals, law firms, universities and banks — have entire units devoted to helping women (and minorities) succeed.”
 
I’m not completely on board with her on that one.
 
Sexism in the Workplace

Although I don’t think there is a nefarious plot afoot, I have experienced the old-boy network in action and have been paid less than men doing the same work. I also know plenty of women who’ve grown tired of being patronized in meetings, as well as ones who didn’t get promoted after they took time out to care for kids and aging parents.
 
(MORE: Does Being a Mom Help or Hurt Your Career?)

Spar concedes that working women in their 60s may well have dealt with sexism on the employment front, particularly early in their careers. “They really were part of the first generation in and certainly would have been distinct minorities as they climbed higher and higher in the ranks,” she says.
 
That said, I’m intrigued by Spar’s feisty worldview: Let’s stop blaming everyone else and start taking responsibility for our actions. And I agree, theoretically, with her notion that women should take a satisficing approach to their careers to live happier lives.

It's About Possibilities, Not Settling
 
“I am advocating ‘satisficing’ for women of all ages,” she told me. “But I wouldn’t want women to hear that as lowering your ambitions. It really is thinking more creatively about the whole array of possibilities. If you can think about decisions as an array of possibilities, it takes a lot of the pressure off.”
 
For instance, Spar says, when she was younger, she wanted to go into Foreign Service. But she realized that it would be difficult to do it and raise a family, so she chose a second option: academia. “I did not see that as giving up. I saw that as, 'Gee, let me see what else I can do,'” she says.
 
(MORE: Sheryl Sandberg’s 5 Best ‘Lean In’ Tips for Women)
 
It comes down to redefining choice, says Spar.

She believes that women must decide which piece of the perfect picture to relinquish, rework or delay and then figure out how to make it all work. 

“They need to pick some areas of their lives where they strive for greatness and others where they settle comfortably for less," she writes in Wonder Women. "They need — consciously, explicitly and happily — to take whole chunks of activities off their to-do lists and add still others to their to-do-less-well lists.”
 
Amen. There’s nothing I like better than "leaning out" by scratching things off my list. But tempering our big-picture dreams is easier said than done.
 
Spar's Other Contrarian Ideas

Here are two more of Spar’s contrarian ideas that I think boomer women might want to consider. At the very least, they make great launching points for a discussion over coffee.
 
1. Many women aren’t reaching the highest rung on the corporate ladder because they’ve chosen to stop climbing, not because men have blocked them. Spar admits that leadership statistics are dismal for women in their 50s and 60s. “Even though these women did enter the workforce generationally in pretty big numbers, they have not ascended to the highest level of powers in pretty much any industry.”
 
But she doesn't blame that on men. “Women are not getting fired from midlevel positions at accounting or law firms; they are not disproportionately being denied tenure at major research universities," she writes. "They are deciding that they need to stay at home or work part-time or step away from the fast track.”
 
Again, it’s about making choices. “When the choice is between compromising a job and compromising a family," says Spar, "women seem more inclined to focus on the family, men to stick with the job that pays the bills.” 
 
I asked her to elaborate. “If women do have the luxury to decide whether or not to work, there is a certain exhaustion factor that just can kick in,” she says. “If you have been climbing and scrambling for 30 years and are dealing with home pressures or taking care of elderly parents and you’re not seeing satisfaction in your job or a clear path to success, at some point you just may want to stop and do something else.”
 
Women married to men who make a load of money exit the workforce at higher rates than those married to men who earn less, notes Spar. It doesn't seem to matter how high the woman’s salary is. This seems to jibe with a recent report on NPR’s Marketplace show that said boomer women have led the job-market exodus after the Great Recession.
 
Often, Spar says, women are choosing to leave their fields because they entered them haphazardly or by default and are no longer keen on that line of work.
 
I’ve found this to be true, too.

Recently, my sister-in-law, who’s 53, stopped working because she wasn’t energized by her banking job. Actually, she never really was, even though she spent more than 25 years in the field. Now that my brother is making a healthy income and the kids are launched, she could call it quits. These days, she delights in volunteering and playing golf.
 
Spar says women are fleeing a number of fields, from banking to accounting to law. However, she adds, there are other professions where women seem to be staying, including medicine, academia and entrepreneurial ventures.  
 
I asked her to explain the dichotomy. “I think you see attrition in fields where your value is determined by how many hours you are sitting at your desk," says Spar. "If you never really loved your job and never truly reveled in the day-to-day work, then it will be harder to embrace the tradeoffs that these professions require and easier over time to pull back.”
 
2. Networking can be a waste of time. In her book Spar writes about hearing an esteemed Harvard professor boast of never going to conferences or chatting with her colleagues.
 
To me, this idea of skipping networking opportunities sounds utterly stupid and potentially harmful to your career, although perhaps in tenured academia it's less detrimental. “When I heard that comment at 21 I was horrified,” Spar says. “But if you really want to have a stellar career and be a mom and have a family life, something has got to give.”
 
And, she adds, some of us are wasting precious hours by networking unwisely. “I think we blithely assume that networking is always good and more networking is always better,” Spar says.
 
That’s a trap — and not just for women, of course.
 
“If you network all the time, you are not getting your job done," says Spar, "and, ultimately, professional success comes from doing a good job. “Networking is important when you want to broaden the array of people who will know you and your good work, but you have to do the good work.”
 
I couldn’t agree more.