Irish Times

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

Why plain Janes make the best career girls

A study of 1,000 successful women in the US has looked for patterns in their formative years. Kathryn Holmquist learns that parental encouragement, education and family seniority are good indicators - but beauty is a handicap.

By Kathryn Holmquist
Irish Times

Successful, happy professional women are pioneers. As they're the first in history to break into male-dominated careers, nobody quite knows yet how they did it. Most had mothers who worked full-time in the home so they had few role models, yet parenting is obviously crucial. So if you're the parent of daughters, you might be interested to know what's special about the parents of a woman who cracks the glass ceiling to become a judge, a senator, a medical doctor, a psychologist, a managing director or a newspaper editor.

A US child psychologist, Sylvia Rimm, made it her business to find out by conducting the most authoritative survey ever undertaken among 1,000 women who have achieved success in traditionally male-dominated careers and also found happiness in their private lives. She distills her findings into 20 guidelines for parents in her book, See Jane Win. It's not surprising to learn that successful women are usually eldest children, that they are more likely to have gone to private girls' schools and colleges and that dedicated and inspiring teachers made all the difference.

Equally predictable are Rimm's findings that successful women enjoyed competitive experiences, were "good little girls" who stayed out of trouble and that few had experimented with drugs, alcohol or tobacco. While most of the successful women interviewed had mothers full-time in the home during preschool years, in later childhood they tended more than others to have mothers working in careers. Such mothers boosted their daughters' self-confidence by demonstrating their competence in the outside world.

You might think that these women came from homes where high self-esteem and assertiveness were paramount. That turned out to be somewhat true, but the crucial parenting message came from the opposite perspective: the parents of these successful women taught them how to cope with failure so that when they hit a brick wall, they picked themselves up and found a way over it. In other words, success was important for these parents and they had high expectations of their daughters, but failure did not cause them to withdraw their love or support. Many of the women experienced anxiety and depression, underachieved or had difficulties during third-level education, but used these as character-forming experiences.

Sociability, attractiveness and belonging to the group turned out to be liabilities, as far as success is concerned. For parents who prize social skills and indulge children with designer labels, the message may be uncomfortable. The girls most likely to have large peer groups and to look beautiful at the "debs" are the least likely to succeed. Successful women were more likely than others to be shy loners who are outside the mainstream of teenage social life and felt "less pretty" than others. Many felt "lonely" and "different", with acne and unfashionable clothes. Women in music, science, mental health, law and art were less social than in most other careers; among the most social as teenagers were women who later succeeded in business and as educators.

If you want a successful daughter, the ethic in your home must be that educational attainment is of the highest priority. Most of the parents of the high achievers in Rimm's study did not have third-level education themselves, yet from an early age they instilled in their daughters the expectation that they would go to university; they also discussed their careers with them. "Don't be too quick to back off if your daughters have to cope with some pressure," Rimm advises. "It's all part of learning resilience . . . However, too much pressure can cause serious problems. Don't set unrealistically high expectations."

The majority of the successful women were highly intelligent, but they were also motivated with good study habits. Rimm's conclusion: "Help your daughters to understand that they don't need to be the smartest to feel smart, but assure them that you believe they are intelligent and that `airheads' don't make it but `brains' do."

The three words that glass ceiling-breakers used most often when describing themselves were "smart", "hard worker" and "independent". Successful women had, as girls, enjoyed competitive and achievement-oriented extracurricular activities, especially music and - among the younger women - sport. Ensure that your daughters do maths and science, especially in all-girls classes if it can be managed, and see that your daughters are challenged academically, even if this means shortening their education by skipping a year. Limit TV (most successful women reported watching two hours or less daily) and encourage reading. And insist that girls spend some time each day alone and quiet, when they can learn to entertain themselves and use their imaginations.

Creativity, challenge and contribution to society were listed as the three most satisfying career goals by Rimm's successful women. "Encourage your daughters' creative thinking. If they have unusual ideas, hear them out. Listening and encouraging their creativity does not prevent your setting reasonable limits but will permit them to think beyond compliance," Rimm advises.

Parents, however, know all too well that no matter how creative, resilient, motivated and intelligent our daughters are, they cannot change the world. Women who combine non-traditional careers with child-rearing usually find themselves living under overwhelming pressure. Rimm's study found that women in traditional careers - homemakers, educators, allied health workers (nurses, for example) and mental health professionals - were most likely to rate their family lives as "excellent". "Don't disdain the option of a traditional career," she advises, since your daughter is more likely to be happy in career and personal life if she is a teacher, a psychologist, a nurse or a fulltime home-maker.

Her advice depth-charges the very aspirations that underpin her study. Why raise a daughter to become a high-flyer in law, medicine or the media if she isn't going to be happy?

Susan Van Scoyoc, the author of a new British study, "Perfect Mothers, Invisible Women", has predicted that it could take 30 years for changes in family life to catch up with the reality of women's working lives. She asks whether we have "condemned women to a living hell" by expecting them to be equal in the workplace without compensatory moves in their personal lives?

Rimm advises parents to encourage daughters to select partners who are willing to share power and parenting responsibilities and who respect their career choices, although Rimm is probably over-optimistic in her view that parents can influence a child's choice of partner. She also believes that to help our daughters cope with the inevitable gender bias, we need to forewarn them in adolescence to temper their dreams with reality, otherwise "each landing, postponement or rejection may cause them to believe they have failed".

It's a depressing and self-defeating scenario, that even as we teach our daughters success, we must prepare them for a world which does not allow women have both careers and families without sacrificing one or the other. Perhaps the book we really need is See John Nurture - a guide for parents on how to raise sons who see family life and relationships as being equal in status to careers.

See Jane Win by Sylvia Rimm is published by Penguin on June 1st, £8.99.