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Doing Our Best (Instead Of Doing It All): Why Terming Women As Superwomen Might Be Doing More Harm Than Good The use of the term "superwoman" has begun an insidious transformation into a new, not-so-empowering paradigm, a competitive discourse challenging its subjects as to who can be the most exhausted, the most overworked, leaving everyone vying for the top spot of the "busiest" woman. As opposed to a superpower, it sounds more like a syndrome.

By Sophie Simpson

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"Superwoman." Is it a dirty word? While its popular culture definition may be one that conjures images of an endlessly multitasking woman who can feed multiple kids with one hand, field work calls with the other, and steer the car with her feet to a charity luncheon, the reckless use of the word holds undesirable implications for womankind. Ironic? Maybe.

So, what is inherently wrong with the term "superwoman"? Well, Gloria Steinem said it best: "You can't do it all. No one can have two full-time jobs, have perfect children, and cook three meals, and be multi-orgasmic 'til dawn... Superwoman is the adversary of the women's movement."

My own mother was a "superwoman," or, at least, I perceived her to be so. An astute, motivated, caring mother who smashed the glass ceiling, and propelled herself through the next two decades as the President of multiple companies. At the same time, she juggled the demanding needs of twins, an international career, home life, and the countless other demands that a busy life delivers in its wake. Often I would ask her, "Just how did you do it all?"

And her advice to me, time and time again, be it when I began climbing the career ladder, or when I co-founded my own company with a female business partner, or, perhaps most pertinently, when I threw having babies into the equation, was this. "Don't be silly, Sophie; women can have it all, but they can't do it all," she told me. "At the end of the day, we have the biological privilege to bear children. So, relish in that privilege, be kind to yourself, and simply do your very best with the support of those around you. No man is an island."

Reflecting on her pragmatic stance on the subject, my "superwoman" mother has always had a way of putting things in black and white. Yet in all of her matter-of-fact wisdom, I'll admit her retorts never quite explained how she'd managed to pull off the remarkable. And so I have taken her achievements as a benchmark, and her advice as my consolation.

I have countless female friends who are also working mothers, and I have heard many, on multiple occasions, express self-doubt in their abilities to "do it all." Disenfranchised in part by the endless stream of "success stories" broadcast across social media by their virtual peers, they are often left questioning whether they measure up, and why they don't always feel like they can bear the load- at least not as effortlessly, glamorously, or graciously "as she does."

Therefore, I pose the hypothesis that in all its over-used glory, the use of the term "superwoman" has begun an insidious transformation into a new, not-so-empowering paradigm, a competitive discourse challenging its subjects as to who can be the most exhausted, the most overworked, leaving everyone vying for the top spot of the "busiest" woman. As opposed to a superpower, it sounds more like a syndrome.

In fact, Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz first coined the term "superwoman syndrome" in 1984 in her book by the same name, suggesting it comes to pass when a woman neglects herself as she strives to achieve perfection in every role she is fulfilling, measuring success or failure against tangible outputs.

When taking on the world, and possibly at times more than our fair share, we need partners, friends, and family who know when to encourage and congratulate our vivacious and "admirable" energy, and when to cough up the home truths- i.e. "You're doing too much," or, "Take a moment, you seem overwhelmed."

Related: Time For A Reset: What The COVID-19 Crisis Might Mean For Gender Equality

In all the ground we have covered over the course of the decades-long women's movement, there has percolated an unspoken sentiment that the extra load should be quietly considered an honor to carry, rather than a burden. That heaven forbid we may be perceived as ungracious or self-absorbed should we whine about our lot.

Many of us may be feeling ashamed to second-guess ourselves, because isn't this the privilege our predecessors went into combat for? Didn't we ask for this? Not only that, but we may feel desperate not to show signs of failing to cope with our individual consignment, for if someone picks up on it, it could deem it evidentiary to our own suspicions that we don't have the smarts, the strength, the competence to "do it all"- to be that "superwoman."

But as the research shows, any woman thinking like this is not alone in feeling overwhelmed, overworked, exhausted, and/or unmotivated. Deloitte's 2022 Women at Work research surveyed 5,000 women in the workplace across a dozen countries, and found that the disruptive impact of the COVID-19 crisis, including its pivotal role in redefining the "new normal" of work, has been overwhelming women.

Burnout, specifically, has reached perilous new heights. The research indicates burnout has led many women to make life-changing personal and career decisions in order to protect their own emotional wellbeing, and mitigate its precarious ripple effects. We have seen examples of this the world over, with many seeking more flexible work arrangements, and others opting out of the workforce altogether.

Deloitte's study shone the light on startling reality, with over half of respondents rating their stress levels as well in excess of what they were a year ago. It aligns with the additional finding that almost 50% felt burnt out, indicating their mental health was either "poor or very poor." Over 30% of the sample group indicated they had taken leave due to mental health, yet the research also revealed that well under half felt they could address these issues comfortably with their employers.

Additional supporting insights drawn from research by Great Place to Work and Maven revealed that mothers in paid employment "were 23% more likely to experience burnout than fathers in paid employment". The analysis also estimated that 2.35 million working mothers in the USA had suffered from burnout since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing the primary cause as "unequal demands of home and work."

Various other studies point the finger at these double-edge home and work pressures. Labor department research from the USA has repeatedly suggested that even when both partners are in paid employment, women's domestic load in the home outweighs that of men. This finding may well be symptomatic of a deeply entrenched social imbalance that the COVID-19 crisis' impact has shone a spotlight on, but also intensified. There are various reasons why women, particularly those caring for children, continue to be more likely than their male counterparts to juggle a more varied set of day-to-day responsibilities, which could be generalized as a rather capricious combination of household and family-related tasks and chores, alongside their paid professional work.

In an ostensibly cruel twist, recent studies such as Female Leadership Advantage and Disadvantage published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly have suggested that society tends to hold women to a higher standard than men, and rewards them for not making mistakes. But internalizing the expectations of others -or what we think they expect- is as sure to burn us out as the sun will set. To continue ascending in our careers, we must tune in to our own standards for what's a good -or good enough- job.

So, when it comes to our protagonist -the "superwoman"- let us always remain conscious of context, and of unique plights of each of our fellow females, when we gush in unbridled wonderment and conviction over her seemingly "superhuman" ability to "do it all." Let us make a pact not to airbrush reality for, as ever, real conversations will better serve us to empower each other, and womankind.

And as women, let us remember that trying to do it all and have it all -and all at once at that- is a spicy recipe for burnout, and quite possibly setting us back in strides in our pursuit of fulfilment and happiness. At the end of the day, you over there are doing your best, and for that, I applaud you.

Related: Why Gender Equality And Women-Centric Policies Make Good Business Sense

Sophie Simpson

Founder and Managing Director, Atteline

Sophie Simpson is the founder and Managing Director of Atteline, an award-winning public relations agency headquartered in Dubai, UAE. Leveraging global experience, regional insight, and local expertise, Atteline packages, protects, and propels the brands it believes in across the consumer and corporate landscape. 

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