The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

Like actors who want to direct, journalists want to write novels. So did I, back in the day -- I had a wealth of material gleaned from hours of interviews with high achieving people who were at or near the top of their game. I published two books (Women on Top and Making Good: Conversations with Successful Me) about how, and how differently, men and women experienced success -- not how they achieved it, but what it felt like. I wondered whether the price they paid was worth the payoffs they earned, and they were as candid and open as they could be. The women discussed their feelings openly, and the men, despite trying their best, squirmed or looked away when I asked them about their emotional lives, quickly shifting the conversation back to their greatest hits, career-wise.

I wanted to put all the juicy, off the record details I couldn't use in those books into a novel. Tradeoffs was the fictional version of what I learned about how women in the early 80s fared during a time when the goals of balancing work and love, having it all, breaking the glass ceiling, etc., seemed not only realistic but within reach -- a straight line from where they were then to the corner office, the C suite, the partnership. They were the first baby boomers to make it to the middle, if not quite the top, of the corporation, the network, the agency, or the law firm, and Tradeoffs ended on an optimistic note because in those heady days, its three central characters believed the future was theirs, once they solved the problem one of them articulates in the novel's first page: "How do we get to be like them without, well, being like them?"

Thirty some years later, women are just where they were then -- we haven't come such a long way, baby. We're woefully underrepresented in the still predominately male C suites, the glass ceiling is almost as impenetrable for all but a favored few, the boardrooms are still "a work in progress" in terms of gender diversity, as a recent McKinsey report concluded, and a new round of interviews with women at the same rung of the success ladder today as those whose baby boom mothers were similarly situated back then ring with a distressing familiarity. One of them, a friend's 30-year-old daughter, picked up a copy of Tradeoffs in a used bookstore recently, and called me when she finished it. "It's as relevant today as it must have been then. We're still stalled, tolerated, patronized, ignored and overlooked," said this senior manager at Google. "Real success is still tantalizingly out of reach, and as for balancing life and work, forget it!" I heard almost the same words from a 53-year-old woman who's a partner in a large law firm, just as her mother was 35 years ago: "She never expected me to run into the same obstacles she did, the same attitudes toward women, the same barriers." And from a 40-year-old creative director at an ad agency, "If you wonder what happened to Peggy, Joan and the other women of "Mad Men" after it ended, the answer is they never got the gold ring, at least not from their careers. Once my mother realized she couldn't do both, have a family and a career at the same time, she focused all that drive and energy into over parenting her kids."

So I decided to republish my novel. I hadn't planned to update it or make any changes at all, but as I read it, the typical mistakes of a first-time novelist kept tripping me up -- the more I read, the more I wondered why my editor never red-penciled the extraneous verbiage, put yellow post-its in all the places I told instead of showed, and circled my use of the passive voice where an active one would enliven a sentence. I didn't change anything essential, just edited it the way Elmore Leonard said a writer should, by leaving out the boring stuff. It was a pretty successful book back then, when "midlist," like "feminism," wasn't a dirty word; it sold around 75,000 copies here and another 25,000 in Europe.

I was telling a young woman about it just the other day. "Is it an historical novel?" she asked, and I just smiled. Yes, I told her. And no.