Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Between Marissa Mayer & the Opt Out Mom: Why Women Need More Career Role Models

Last month, I was at a SXSW Interactive panel featuring a Q&A with Anne-Marie Slaughter of “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” fame. There was plenty of discussion around getting better choices for high-powered women, but there was something else I found interesting: Several of the 20-something women in the audience felt disheartened by the debate over having it all in the first place—a debate that assumes, at its core, that women ought to be striving to “have it all.”

This struck a chord, because it’s consistent with what I’ve seen in many discussions I’ve had with 20-something women. In my interviews for 40:20 Vision, I’ve heard repeatedly from young women that they just don’t know how to make “having it all” work:

[You have to] make money first and then get a job where you make less money but have time to have kids. Or, you have to miss out on personal fulfillment and fight your way to the top… Maybe there are other options, but as 20-somethings, we can’t really envision how it would work.

—Kristy, 20-something, Qualitative Researcher, New York City

It’s this intense pressure to get it all out of the way by a certain time. We have to accomplish everything before we decide to get married or have kids. It’s such a choose or lose situation.

—Fran, 20-something, Strategic Consultant, New York City

One reason for this seems evident enough: Many young women today don’t know where to look for inspiration. Holding up the power trio of Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, and Anne-Marie Slaughter feels somewhat akin to looking at the 1%—but on the other hand, aspiring to fit your career in by age 35 so you can step back and have a family is disheartening as well. The lack of visibility of women who have successfully “leaned in” throughout their career without leaning out of a fulfilling personal life leads many Millennial women to think they have few options, or that making it work is for the lucky (or rich, or already-successful) ones.

But that’s not true at all.

In fact, there is a cadre of women out there finding simultaneous success in their professional and personal lives, without having to become a COO of multi-billion dollar company or an Ivy League professor first. They are just under the radar.

On the 40-something side of my research for 40:20 Vision, I have seen a trend of reinvention for women, particularly women over 40, who have harnessed the power of their experiences for new solutions. Through life, work, and motherhood for some, many women have found ways to align purpose, passion, and their profession and create options all their own.

These women reflect the path less followed by the media: a path that recognizes there can be ebbs and flows in a career path based less on traditional notions of balance and more on what makes sense for each person.

Women like Mary Jo Cook, who pioneered flex-time arrangements during her 20 years at Clorox in innovation and then transitioned to nonprofit leadership ranks at Fair Trade USA, where she defined her own role and title as Chief Impact Officer.

Women like Tereza Nemessanyi, who transitioned between the startup and corporate world during her early 20s and parenting years—from being employee #1 at a media startup to going into management consulting to founding her own company at 40. She has converged this experience and her entrepreneurial spirit to take on the position of Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Microsoft.

Women like Whitney Johnson, who left Wall Street to eventually start Rose Park Advisors (Disruptive Innovation Fund) with Clayton Christensen and write Dare Dream Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream to encourage all women to pursue their latent dreams.

These “beyond the 1% role models,” can give younger women the reassurance to know that both life and career can have many options, can take many turns, and might hold many reset buttons.

Hearing these stories, Whitney Johnson and I were inspired to create the 40 Women to Watch Over 40 List. Our goal: to provide women in their 20s and 30s with role models who feel within reach. By recognizing these individuals, we hope to give younger women access to role models who aren’t the 1%, but who are like them, who can show them they’re not confined to the “traditional” options. We want to inspire a generation of up-and-comers to create new models for women and work, and give them a place to start.

And we want your help! Who do you look up to? Do you know an under-the-radar woman over 40 who’s found her balance, and who can be a new role model for Millenial women? Tell us who she is, so that she can inspire others.

Nominate someone for the 40 Over 40 List (or apply yourself!). Or, share your nominations on Twitter at @40over40 or on Facebook at Fortyover40. Nominations are open until April 30.

Photo of woman smiling courtesy of Shutterstock.

A logo with "the muse" in white text.