THE BLOG
01/23/2015 01:05 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

The New Meaning Of Success For Professional Women

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.

Even though their lives may not be perfect, they're pleased with the compromises they've achieved. But does that mean success brings happiness? I'm not so sure -- at least not for every woman. Not all the time, anyway. And if media and blog attention is a measure, those compromises are more difficult for others. That the happiness they assumed came packaged with success, is, in fact, far more elusive.

Surveys confirm a connection between success on the job and happiness. There's the 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 a Gallup study that found stay-at-home moms were more likely to experience stress, worry, anger and sadness than those who worked at paying jobs.

But other surveys refute the notion that working moms, like the one conducted by ForbesWoman and TheBump.com, which found that a growing number of woman 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 that do seem to indicate the needle is swinging farther in one direction than the other. A report by Kinsey 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 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." The question now being asked mostly by women is "what does success really mean? The reason more woman ask is because the answer is 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 is more money or a better job or a better parking space or a hotter wife. Success is about besting the competition in any number of contests, period.

Women 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 find women's overwhelming need to "feel appreciated" confusing. Which is why women are more likely 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.

To the extent that female inability to equate professional success with happiness exists, there is an 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 at paying jobs. Others say that women realize and bemoan the psychic payoff in reaching life-long goals may be less than advertised. Men say, "join the club" -- success isn't supposed to make you happy; it's supposed to make you money. Working women report felling worn down from fighting back against slights and petty exclusions that exist in the dark corners of many organizations, even if they ultimately win the battles.

For women, the search for meaning is valid and vitally important, whether it shows up in how they raise a family or how they decide to balance work and life. Women are realizing that a tax return with endless zeroes means nothing if there's no time to take a break to be with friends, read a book, or spend an afternoon with their 3-year-old. Many corporations are realizing this, kicking free of the vestiges of command and control thanks 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.

The female-driven commitment to work/life balance is now not so gender-specific. The introduction and influx of Generation Y in the workplace is shifting why,how much and for whom employees are working. Studies show 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 are retiring, 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, they'll seek their meaning elsewhere. You can count on it.