When I met Sandy, a rising executive at a big-time digital media company, she had two children under two years old. She had been climbing ladders for more than a decade -- since the day she left college, basically -- but she still loved every minute of it. Sure, she was exhausted, even as the family spent thousands a month on a live-in nanny. Her work responsibilities were vast; she was in charge of more than 50 people. Travel for work meant she was rarely home for two consecutive weeks. But she took great pride in her professional achievements. They played a huge part in how she identified, and celebrated, herself. If she wasn't constantly harried, she told me, she might not know who she was.
And Sandy's dedication was paying off: She was killing it at work. "Some days, I really think I could be the next Marissa Mayer," says Sandy, whose name I've changed. "That's hard to turn your back on." The potential of what could be was irresistible, and what kept her getting up at 6 a.m. even after a long night of feedings and diaper changes or transcontinental flights. And yet sometimes she caught herself wondering: Will life always go by this fast? Was this, actually, life?
The old saying, "Success is getting what you want and happiness is wanting what you get" might well sum up the dilemma of many professional women. Certainly, many gladly make the sacrifices and adjustments necessary to get what they want. Maybe that's working until midnight in order to catch their son's afternoon soccer game. Or hiring a nanny to help take care of the kids. Maybe it's not having kids at all.
Even though their lives may not be perfect, they're pleased with what their compromises have achieved.
But does that mean success brings happiness? I'm not so sure -- at least not for every woman. Maybe not even for women like Sandy -- not all the time, anyway. And if media and blog attention is a measure, it seems those compromises are indeed more difficult for others. That the happiness they assumed came packaged with success is, in fact, far more elusive.
Surveys tend to confirm a connection between success on the job and happiness. There's the recent study presented at a meeting of the American Sociological Association, which noted that mothers who go back to work within weeks of giving birth reported feeling more energetic and less depressed than those who spent months or years at home. Or the Gallup study released in May that found stay-at-home moms were more likely to experience stress, worry, anger, and sadness than those who worked paying jobs.
Other surveys, meanwhile, refute the notion that working moms are happier moms, like the one conducted by ForbesWoman and TheBump.com, which found that a growing number of women view staying home to be the ideal circumstance of motherhood. These examples, however, prove only that happiness surveys may be second only to infidelity surveys on the scale of unreliability. There are simply too many factors involved -- maybe just a bad week at the office, or a bad week at home -- to form certainty that a trend is a foot.
There are some hard statistics, however, that seem to indicate the needle is swinging farther in one direction than the other. A 2011 report by McKinsey Research pointed out that women are claiming 53 percent of entry-level management jobs. After that, the numbers drop: to 37 percent for mid-managers, and even lower, to 26 percent, for vice presidents and up. These shrinking numbers either mean that the glass ceiling is thicker and lower than we imagined, or that younger women on the way up are finding a way out -- or, quite possibly, both.
Now that more women than ever before are tasting professional success, there's no longer a question of whether a woman can succeed in "a man's world." Of course she can, and does. Instead, the question being asked, most usually by women, is this: What does success really mean? The reason more women ask is because the answer is likely more complex for them than it is for men. Gender intelligence expert Barbara Annis believes the definition of success for men is simple. It's winning. Success might come in the form of more money or a better job or a better parking space or a hotter wife. But success is about besting the competition, in any number of contests, period.
Women, of course, want to win, too. But Annis argues they also want to be valued. She relates that in her experience as a consultant to a range of Fortune 500 companies, the number one reason women leave their jobs is that they feel their work is undervalued and their strengths are overlooked. Men, she adds, find women's overwhelming need to "feel appreciated" very confusing. Which is why women are more likely than men to abandon a paying job to stay home with the kids, or seek out jobs that are more fulfilling than lucrative. Not that motherhood is often overvalued, or even thoroughly appreciated, but the truth is that it's easier to cut your own kid some slack for treating you like dirt than it is your 50-year-old boss.
I have a friend -- I'll call her Maggie -- who embodies the work-value dilemma. She was an overworked, underpaid editor of a small magazine who some time ago decided to become a lawyer. Her life became long days at work, long hours in night school, and grueling hours buried in books. But she got her degree, passed the bar, and landed a sought-after position as an associate at a mid-sized firm. She achieved her dream.
And yet, she's miserable. "It's not the amount of work," she told me. "It's that the work doesn't mean anything to me. And, to be honest, I think the people I work for could care less whether I do it or somebody else does. When I was an editor, it was more about me and something special I brought to the job. It never occurred to me that I could make this much money, and be this unhappy doing it." She's thinking of packing up her law degree and heading back to journalism.
To the extent that female inability to equate professional success with happiness exists, there is ample opinion as to why. Some blame the much-dissected dual pressures of home and work: Labor Department surveys consistently find that women do more at home than men, even when both are working paying jobs. Others say that women realize, and bemoan, the fact that the psychic payoff in reaching lifelong goals may be less than was advertised. Men might say, "join the club" -- success isn't supposed to make you happy; it's supposed to make you money. But working women tend to thrive less on drama and conflict. They report feeling worn down from fighting back against the slights and petty exclusions that still exist in the darker corners of many organizations, even if they ultimately win those battles.
This isn't a weakness. For women, the search for meaning is not only valid, but vitally important, whether it shows up in how they approach raising a family or how they decide to balance work and life. They're realizing that a tax return with endless zeroes may mean nothing if there's no time to take a break to explore the world, be with friends, read a book on a quiet beach, or spend an idle afternoon with their 3-year-old. To their credit, many corporations are realizing this, kicking free of the vestiges of command and control, thanks, in large part, to women leaders who are infusing the workday with a focus on showing appreciation, doing meaningful work, and leaving time for family -- without compromising performance. It's one reason such an uproar was made when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting at the company. Some women felt betrayed that another woman wasn't helping make parenting-while-working easier, calling her, at turns, draconian, snobbish, and out of touch. But others commended her for doing her part to help the company stay relevant, reporting that Yahoo badly needed the discipline that Mayer is calling for.
Of course, this female-driven commitment to work/life balance will likely not be so gender-specific for long. The introduction and influx of Generation Y in the workplace will very quickly begin to shift why, how, how much, and for whom employees are working. Studies very clearly show that millennials -- both men and women -- have no intention of bartering quality of life for a paycheck. Too many watched their parents make that trade off, only to then see the paycheck disappear in the recession. Work, meaning, and recognition are seamless parts of their career expectations. And as baby boomers begin to retire en masse, it's a safe bet that a workplace that combines financial and emotional reward is where a new generation of talent is going to want to build careers. And if they don't want to build careers? Well, then, that just means they'll seek their meaning elsewhere. You can count on it.
This article first appeared on Forbes.com.