04.16.134:45 AM ET

How Women Define Success

Personal growth vs. career goals. Women say one is more important—and it’s not the one you think.

Gloria spent what seemed like her entire life dreaming of becoming a lawyer. As a child, she’d make her sisters “play law office,” holding pretend meetings, filling out pretend paperwork, and lining up her stuffed animals to serve as judge and jury. For her birthday one year, her father gave her light pink business cards that read “Attorney-in-Training,” which she’d eagerly hand out to everyone she met.

After law school, she went to work for a big-time New York criminal firm, and following a few huge wins established herself as one of the country’s top criminal attorneys under 35—male or female. The partners at her firm rewarded her hard work and talent with promotions, raises, and placement on the most interesting cases. She described her work to me as incredibly fulfilling. When she and her husband, Martin, decided to have children, Gloria never questioned whether she’d go back to work after the yearlong sabbatical she knew she was lucky to have been granted.

Ten years later, Gloria was indeed back to work and as busy as ever—but struggling in a way she hadn’t expected. “I love being a mom,” she told me. “But work is work, and the problem is that I don’t actually miss my son when I’m there. Is that wrong? It feels wrong.” Ten-year-old James is smart and talented—an accomplished pianist, already—and kind to others. Gloria speaks of him with great pride. “But for me, there is just absolutely nothing like the feeling of putting in the hours, being part of a team, and, ultimately, hearing someone read aloud a judgment in your favor,” she said. “I know it probably sounds heartless, or at least un-motherly, and I would never give up my son for anything in the world, but I can picture myself not being a mom. I can’t picture myself not being a lawyer.” Getting her own paycheck—and a sizable one at that—made her feel powerful and self-sufficient. So did the respect she knew she commanded from the partners in her firm and her peers in the field. By all rights, Gloria had pretty good work-life balance but this, to her, was success: feeling smart, necessary, strong.

Usually, when we talk about success in terms of how it’s defined and experienced by men versus how it is by women, we call out the differences, which tend to fall along stereotypical gender lines. According to a 2006 study that appeared in the journal Sex Roles, for example, when women talk about success, they talk about the importance of relationships and feeling valued. Men focus more on material success. Surveys, like a recent one commissioned by Citi and LinkedIn, further perpetuate the notion that women want balance while men want achievement. Women want to “have it all.” Men just want money. It’s an easy generalization to uphold, especially in a culture that still promotes the idea that men should be if not the primary breadwinners, then pretty significant contributors to the family pot.

But women want money, too. In fact, although the most widely hyped statistic pulled from the Citi/LinkedIn study was that 96 percent of women think they can “have it all,” with only 17 percent of women considering reaching the height of success in their field a factor in such an assessment, money ranked second in terms of how women define success. That’s because for many, male or female, money is tied to feelings of security and self-importance, and often very directly related to how much a person is worth at work. And so when women talk about wanting to feel valued, is it so different from when we talk about wanting to feel prestigious?

In fact, a recent survey of more than 4,000 male and female professionals by management consulting firm Accenture found that there may be more similarities than differences between men and women when it comes to defining success. More than two thirds of females—and the same number of males—surveyed felt they could “have it all.” More than half turned down a job due to concerns about its impact on work-life balance. Both genders, meanwhile, ranked the qualities of career success as work-life balance first, followed by money, recognition, and autonomy. And in the end, 53 percent of women, and 50 percent of men, said they are satisfied with their jobs. A 2010 study of male and female business school graduates published in the Journal of Behavioral Studies in Business, meanwhile, asked 2,000 men and women, “What is success to you?” Women answered “career goals.” Men, “personal growth.”

More than likely, our views of how men and women define success are shaped by social and cultural expectations: there is the expectation on the mother to say she’d rather be home with her child, or that she wishes she worked a little less; there is the expectation on the father to go out and earn if not all the money, then a good chunk of it. That is, the surveys are flawed: women may say they value family over work, or work-life balance, because that’s what they think they should say.

Because although men say they want balance, too, are they willing to give up their paycheck to get it? In her 20s Cindy ended a number of relationships with men whom, she eventually found out, expected her to one day give up her career and assume a traditional care-taking role in pursuit of raising a family. Then she met Greg, a fellow tech consultant who worked as hard as she did—and wanted a family as much, too. He never assumed she would stop working. “Still, of the two of us, I was the one who was expected to take the more flexible schedule, and a less financially rewarding situation, to accommodate a more sort of conventional motherhood arrangement,” she said. “This was in pursuit of our family’s ‘work-life balance.’” But work-life balance for whom?

The Sex Roles study suggests that the different expectations that women face—that is, the fact that they’re conditioned to be caring and nurturing—may indeed lead them to express—though, notably, not necessarily feel—different values and concerns. Which means, of course, that we’re not asking the right questions—though we’re starting to. As the Accenture study makes clear, if there is a female-driven commitment to work-life balance, it will likely not be so gender-specific for long. How’s that for having it all?