What does a successful woman look like?


Sarah Macdonald

Cate Blanchett arrives at the Tropfest 2012 short film festival at The Royal Botanic Gardens on February 19, 2012.

Cate Blanchett arrives at the Tropfest 2012 short film festival at The Royal Botanic Gardens on February 19, 2012.

As I joined in the dud named ‘having it all’ debate on the radio the other day, it struck me what’s missing from the conversation. The concept of what we judge as success.  I’m not advising Hilary Clinton or running a top law firm and I don’t have a harbour view or an OA.  But the point is I don’t really want any of those things. (Although the harbour view would be nice)


When I was in my twenties, my idea of success was being a political correspondent. I did it but didn’t want to do it forever. My career goal was to present the Morning Show on Triple J; I got it and I loved it, but I left after a few years because it wasn’t the only thing important to me.  In my thirties I wanted a successful relationship and I was prepared to make some sacrifices - like moving overseas - to get it.  Then I set a new goal - to write a book and I fulfilled that dream as well. 



After I had kids, I was too overwhelmed and besotted to set any more goals for quite a while. I only wanted to work casually for a long while. To do this, I not only had to redefine my idea of success but also reset my expectations of what I was capable of achieving.  I acknowledge stepping back from a career may have been a self-justification of not being able to do it all.  But whatever it was, I found it important to maintaining happiness and sanity.


A few years later and I’ve still not gone back to a clear career trajectory.  I’m now more comfortable defining my own success as being a loving parent, a decent daughter to my aging parents, a helpful member of my community, a broadcaster and writer. While I fail frequently in many of those ventures, it’s clear I judge myself more broadly than I used to. One of my greatest achievements has been helping one of my kids through a tough time.  It’s not my story to tell but it sustains me personally.  


When I wasn’t working, a ‘successful’ woman sternly told me “your kids will never thank you for it”.  I was a touch hurt and shocked, but she was right.  I try to balance an equation in my head – if I give up too much I’ll resent them, if I don’t give up enough, they’ll resent me.  Kids are compromise from the day they are a dot and you can’t have that drink you crave.


Most people redefine their idea of success as they age.  But I do feel women show more flexibility and breadth in resetting goals.  Maybe it’s because we have to, maybe it’s because we are less single-minded or maybe it still fits in with society’s expectations.  One man was upset I stated this on the radio but I didn’t mean all men define success only by career. I see men increasingly broadening their idea of doing well and they are happier for it.


For those women who are more career-focussed within traditional power structures, I say yay and thank you.  I desperately want women who want to succeed in positions of power, influence and prestige and to have all the support in the world that they need. I may not want to be Prime Minister or run a top company but I want women to go for it. I’m not saying they are not brilliant parents – it’s just not for me.


My sister is incredibly successful in her career and I admire her deeply for it.  She’s managed by being married to a freelancer who stays at home more.  I know quite a few couples in this position and I love to watch them redefine those gender stereotypes.  But while I would advise women who want to succeed in business and politics to chose their mate wisely, I realise we can’t choose who we fall in love with.  That’s why workplaces and childcare should change to suit power couples or those who have to both work hard to just get by  (I acknowledge the having it all conversation is incredibly middle class.)


I started by saying how we define success is a personal matter, but it’s an important conversation for society as well. I don’t want my child to be a movie star or celebrity but if they want it, I’ll point them in the direction of Cate Blanchett as a role model. I want them to have authentic lives to contribute to society and be as good as they are great.


Alina Tugend wrote a piece in the New York Times this year that resonated with me. She bemoaned our narrow visions of accomplished lives and our tendency to devalue many qualities that are critically important.  Alice pointed to a column in the Toronto Star that paid tribute to a 55 year old woman called Shelagh Gordon, who died of a brain aneurysm.


Shelagh never had a great job, wasn’t married and never had kids but the newspaper interviewed more than 100 people who had been touched by her kindness and love.  I cried at the rare homage to caring, honour, integrity and goodness in a life we see as ‘ordinary’.


To me, successful people are those who achieve their goals while staying decent and loving to those close to them and far from them.  I want society to allow women and men to be flexible enough to redefine success and powerful enough to do that via desire, not limitations. To me, that’s having it all.