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leah eichler

Can women have it all?

This question comes up repeatedly in the dialogue about women and careers. I frequently encounter contemporaries who believe it's the duty of women in their 30s and 40s to warn the next generation that they cannot, in fact, have it all. They fret about new graduates who are certain their future holds generous salaries, lofty titles, a partner with the same, and maybe even children in private school by the time they hit their mid-30s.

I never want to quash those dreams. I entertained them myself at one point and still believe the possibility exists for those who are up for the challenge and willing to make personal sacrifices.

What should be evaluated more critically is the definition of "all," which I interpret as synonymous with success. Externally, one's salary and job title present obvious markers of career success. Internally, many men and women may have an alternate understanding of success. Reconciling the two is no easy feat.

"You can have it all, but sometimes not all at once," said Lisa Heidman, senior client partner and North American director of Bedford Legal at the Bedford Consulting Group, a global executive search firm in Toronto.

Ms. Heidman, who also acts as an adviser and coach to board- and C-level clients, often encourages senior executives, as well as up-and-coming talent, to be clear about what drives them and what they uniquely have to offer, both professionally and personally. She believes success comes when a person's drive and skill set is strategically aligned with an organization and its goals, values and culture.

She warns against fixating on a singular definition of career success, or of characterizing yourself by some else's definition.

"There isn't one answer for everyone. There are always choices and compromises," Ms. Heidman explained. "What's important is to make these decisions consciously, and to also respect and support the many choices we make as women in our individual and collective career paths."

Perhaps it's not recent graduates who need to be taught the meaning of success, however. Maybe they have it right and we're too jaded to recognize the change.

Julia Richardson, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at York University's School of Human Resource Management, regularly asks her students to define career success. Although some speak of it in terms of scaling to the top of an organization, she said many students – specifically women – often hold a broader view.

For them, success includes factors such as happiness with their family life, making a contribution to society, and having a job they really enjoy. Dr. Richardson muses that perhaps this expanded view of success comes from watching their parents work long hours to afford a certain lifestyle, leading her students to question if that's what they really want.

Some recent data backs up the observation that women, even if they earn less than men, find more meaning in their work. Seattle-based PayScale Inc., which mines global online compensation data, culled responses last year from 30,000 U.S. workers and found that women were more likely than men to say their job makes the world a better place. While pay levels played a more important role for men, they also acknowledged having to make longer commutes than women, meaning they sacrificed more for that pay cheque.

Although it is wonderful that many women place more emphasis on personal fulfilment over traditional markers of success, I wonder if this could be a case of cognitive dissonance. They can't obtain the level of success they originally aspired to, so they veer toward external markers of success that are more readily available.

"I don't think they are kidding themselves in any way," said Dr. Richardson, while acknowledging that it might prove difficult to maintain your internal vision of success if it collides with the opinions of family and peers.

Barbara Stewart, portfolio manager with Cumberland Private Wealth Management Inc. in Toronto, is one who appears to have reconciled her inner goals with external markers of success by associating herself with a firm that offers her freedom and allows her to explore her intellectual curiosity.

While managing clients with a minimum of $1-million in investible assets, Ms. Stewart also carved out the time to research the financial lives of women around the world, exploring how the messages they received about money while growing up had an impact on their behaviour and level of confidence.

She found that although money symbolized their value as professionals for many of her subjects, the actual amount earned was not as significant to their definition of success. It's an outlook she appears to share.

"For me, being successful is having the freedom to live all parts of myself … It's up to me how I work, when I work, where I work," Ms. Stewart said. "Producing revenue is the bottom line but it's up to me to decide the best way to do that."

Leah Eichler is co-founder of Femme-o-Nomics , a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: