What if working women don't want to have it all?


Calling all “mouseburgers” — it’s time for a massive mindset change.

Helen Gurley Brown, the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan, teased out this term in 1982 to describe regular women who didn’t believe they could have the things that attractive, go-getter women did. Brown told them they really could have it all if they applied themselves, a revolutionary message that has resonated for decades.

But that message doesn’t work in today’s demanding workplace culture.

In her new book, “The Myth of Making It: A Workplace Reckoning,” Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the former executive editor of Teen Vogue, rips apart this view as old-fashioned. She canvasses the state of women in the workplace from the 1960s to today, sharing her own experiences along the way.

“What if we finally said, ‘Enough is enough,’” she writes. “I have what I need — I do not need it ‘all.’ I refuse to do it all; stop trying to make me!”

Wanting it all has driven women to the brink — struggling with mental and physical health issues because they “have been sold a false bill of goods about what makes a happy, prosperous life,” according to Mukhopadhyay.

“‘Making it’ is a myth to me, not because I didn’t make it,” she told Yahoo Finance. “I did make it, and I’m still making it.” The problem is that she still works too much. She has a hard time doing all the things that need to get done instead of thinking about the bigger picture of what makes for a successful life.

Here’s what Mukhopadhyay had to say about why women must fundamentally change how they think about work, edited for length and clarity:

Kerry Hannon: Samhita, why this book right now?

I was at the apex of my career. I had worked really hard to get to this position, but I didn’t have a language to talk about why I wasn’t feeling content in not just the role, but where I was in terms of mental health and my own stamina and burnout. Even though on paper I had made it, what was I really doing?

I started to talk to other women about the same experience, and I realized that almost all of us had been told that if we work hard, we will get where we want to go. We will get everything we want in life. But many women were not feeling satisfied with their job. They didn’t feel like they had the stability and the kind of career success that they should have considering how much work they’d put in and how much they had sacrificed. They look like they have it all, but they felt like they were failures because they weren’t doing everything perfectly that they were tasked with doing.

Author Samhita Mukhopadhyay (righ) talks about the myth that for women a little personal hustle, negotiating, work ethic, and good time management can overcome any hurdle that you experience in the workplace. (Photo credit: Monnelle Britt)Author Samhita Mukhopadhyay (righ) talks about the myth that for women a little personal hustle, negotiating, work ethic, and good time management can overcome any hurdle that you experience in the workplace. (Photo credit: Monnelle Britt)

Author Samhita Mukhopadhyay (righ) talks about the myth that for women a little personal hustle, negotiating, work ethic, and good time management can overcome any hurdle that you experience in the workplace. (Photo credit: Monnelle Britt) ((Photo credit:Monnelle Brit))

What is “corporate feminism” and why is it setting us up to fail?

It’s the idea that a little personal hustle, negotiating, work ethic, and good time management can overcome any hurdle that you experience in the workplace — whether it be unequal treatment, sexual harassment, lower pay, being looked over for promotion — all of that can be overcome by personal hard work and being focused.

It pushes women and incentivizes them to internalize that they can just overcome these hurdles. But what we need is to come together to overcome some of these workplace inequality issues.

With corporate feminism, women end up competing against each other. You say there’s one seat for a woman at the table and that seat’s for me.

What does “real success” in the workplace for women look like?

Women need to recalibrate what success means. Success is obviously an individual decision and scale of how you determine it. So far, the way that we’ve measured that is promotions, your salary, how much you negotiate when you come in the door.

What if we broadened that to really say success is when women don’t do the majority of the care work in the home, and women are paid equitably and aren’t looked over for promotion when they decide to have a child. There’s been this separation between what workplace success is and what are the conditions that women need to be successful.

I don’t think the problem is that women aren’t working hard enough. I don’t know a single lazy girl. I know a lot of women who would love a little bit more free time.

What is the modern mindset counterpoint to Brown’s “you can have it all”?

We know it’s not true, but somehow it still determines the conversation. We still say, you can have it all….but maybe not at the same time. I am fascinated by how we sold to women this idea that they could have it all, and then when they couldn’t successfully do it all, made them feel like failures. It was a progressive message at the time, but remember Helen Gurley Brown didn’t have children.

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Why is the “girl boss” out now?

It was the movement in the startup space for women-run businesses that were feminist-themed, but not necessarily feminist per se. There was a real interest in it from venture capital, but the facades started to fall apart. Some of the practices weren’t necessarily egalitarian.

But the uproar was a backlash against women’s ambition, as I see it. There were a handful of girl bosses who didn’t have a perfect company. But how many boy bosses create toxic environments, raise millions of dollars, burn that money, and fail? You don’t see these full-throated investigations of their personal lives and their behaviors.

The essence of “girl boss” is not really gone. Women are still motivated and ambitious. And starting your own business is still a way to get ahead. But let’s start by not calling women “girls.”

What accelerated the awareness of the myth of having it all during the pandemic?

The cracks showed during the pandemic when childcare was no longer available, and it was really clear that women were still doing the majority of childcare. Many had to step back from their careers because their husbands made more money, so it made more sense to keep his job, or it was just not tenable to do homeschooling while working and maintaining the house.

It’s hard to do all of it: raising your children, being present for them, being part of your household while also being really ambitious and motivated and not be exhausted all the time.

Shot of a young businesswoman looking anxious in a demanding office environmentShot of a young businesswoman looking anxious in a demanding office environment

Many successful women look like they have it all, but they felt like they were failures because they weren’t doing everything perfectly that they were tasked with doing, according to Mukhopadhyay. (Getty Creative) (Peopleimages via Getty Images)

How has the workplace for women changed since Brown’s time?

In today’s workplace, the more ambitious you are, the more you’re expected to work, the higher you go in your company. Now you’re checking emails at 6 a.m., and then you’re feeding your kids and getting them off to school, and then you’re at the office, and then you might leave at 6. And then you pick up your kids, and then you’re checking emails at 9 p.m., and it’s just exhausting. It’s unsustainable.

What can we do better?

It’s twofold. There’s a mindset shift, which is both individual and collective, where we start to say, what does it mean to have enough? What does it mean to be successful? What is going to give me a satisfying and happy life?

For me, I had all the elements to have a happy life, so why was I not happy? Why did I not have the things that you’re supposed to have when you work that hard?

It’s fine to say that work is too stressful. I need to emotionally unplug, or I’m just doing this job for money. But most people want to feel impactful in their life. They want to do things that have meaning, and I heard that from women who work in a fast food chain to the CEO of a company.

Alone we can’t actually change a lot of these things. But the big issue is: How do we create these environments that allow people to feel that they can bring their full selves to work? It’s not actually beneficial for your bottom line to have people stressed out and under-resourced.

Kerry Hannon is a Senior Columnist at Yahoo Finance. She is a career and retirement strategist, and the author of 14 books, including “In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in The New World of Work” and “Never Too Old To Get Rich.” Follow her on X @kerryhannon.

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