High-Achieving Women Need More Than a Bubble Bath

A few weeks ago, I reconnected with two outstanding women.  The first, a human resources executive I know from a law firm I worked at; and the second, a talented attorney I worked with several years ago.  We caught up with each others’ lives, and I told them about my next business venture.  I told them how frustrated I felt about the quality of resources available to high-achieving women looking for practical strategies for dealing with stress, burnout, and work/life issues.  I explained that much of what I find either borders on therapy or is what I call “fluff.”  Very few folks seem to understand or tailor advice to what high-achieving, driven women really experience on a daily basis.  Without hesitating, both women said, “Exactly!  People seem to think all we need is a bubble bath!”     

They each discussed the guilt they feel working late hours which means less time spent with their kids.  We talked about the difficult challenges women lawyers and women leaders face regularly.  In addition, each of these women have made the tough decision that they will work while their spouses stay home with the kids, an arrangement that is not the norm for most working women.   

So what makes a woman “high-achieving?”    It’s a combination of mindset and behavior that causes women to be accomplishment focused and achievement oriented in each of their multiple roles.  According to Dr. Harriet Braiker, “the phrase refers to characteristic ways of thinking about achievement, rather than how high on the career ladder a woman may be.” (1) 

Other high-achieving traits include (2):

1.  A drive to excel and seek new challenges

2.  Competitive

3.  Serious

4.  Perseverance

5.  Highly responsive

6.  Risk takers (within carefully defined limits)

7.  Recognition for performance

8.  Passionate about work

Many of these traits are found in high-achieving men, but they often manifest themselves differently in women.  Many top performing women carry with them a set of assumptions that impact their underlying thought processes.  Some of the most common assumptions include:

1.  I have to be perfect and do things perfectly.

2.  I should be able to manage it all and accomplish it all without feeling stressed or tired.

3.  I have to prove myself to everyone.

4.  I can’t relax until I finish what I have to do.

5.  I should be able to accomplish more in a day.

6.  I can handle it all on my own.

7.  I have to be a people pleaser – I’ll please others by doing what they ask me to do (3).

These flawed assumptions produce specific thoughts about work and life that drive a great deal of stress-producing behavior in high-achieving women.  Specifically, high-achieving women often overextend their time and resources, fail to delegate, are not assertive in saying “no” or denying requests, don’t ask for help, and evaluate themselves harshly and frequently (4). 

Women lawyers are particularly susceptible to this type of stress because in addition to having the mixture of high-achiever mindset and behavior, you work in an environment that affords you very little control over your day and the outcome of the cases and projects you’re working on, many firms and companies are slow to incorporate the flexibility you need and seek, and the standard billable hour structure keeps you locked into a competitive cycle of simply needing to make numbers.

In addition, the very traits that cause law firms and companies to hire high-achieving women are the very traits that law firms and companies fail to manage or don’t know how to manage appropriately.  As a result, high-achieving women take their talents elsewhere.  Research by Dr. Marcia Reynolds indicates that high-achieving women look for the following five things at work:

1.  Frequent new challenges to stretch their talents and grow;

2.  Flexible schedules;

3.  The opportunity to collaborate and work with other high-achievers;

4.  Recognition from the company/firm; and

5.  Freedom to be themselves.

So bubble baths, while great, aren’t going to help high-achievers manage their stress long term, and self-help strategies along those lines aren’t going to help companies and law firms retain these talented women.  In order to build stress resilience, high-achieving women need to understand both the way they think about themselves, their achievements, and relationships with others and the resulting behaviors. 

We have a unique opportunity to create a better discussion about how to help high-achieving women thrive in life and work.  Will you join me?


1.  Braiker, H. (2006). The type E* woman: How to overcome the stress of being *everything to everybody. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc., p. xi.

2.  The list of characteristics and behaviors exhibited by high-achieving women was compiled from the following sources:

DeLong, T.J., & DeLong, S. (2011, June). Managing yourself: The paradox of excellence. Retrieved December 2, 2011, from

Reynolds, M. (2010). Wander woman: How high-achieving women find contentment and direction.  San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

3.  Braiker, supra note 1, at 157.

4.  Id. at 189-190.





I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here about stress and work-life balance for women.  I have found a reframing concept particularly helpful for me which is the idea of work-life integration.  People who are talking about work-life integration eschew the idea that we can ever truly find “balance” and instead should strive to integrate our work and personal lives so that we find fulfillment in both.  I think it’s a useful tool that prevents you from thinking that everything in life has to be in perfect balance because the reality is, it won’t be.
I am also in the process of re-reading “How Remarkable Women Lead” by Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston.  The book presents the Centered Leadership Model which I think can be very helpful for women who are trying to “do it all.”


I love the idea of work/life integration.  I have read “How Remarkable Women Lead.”  Much of the research the authors used comes from the science of Positive Psychology, which I received my master’s in at the University of Pennsylvania.  Another good read is called “Restore Yourself” by Dr. Edy Greenblatt.
Thanks for your comment!


I’ll have to check out that book.
I find that the biggest challenge is taking care of the household (including the kids), since my husband and I both have demanding careers. I wish one of us wanted to stay home, but neither of us does. (OK, I really wish that HE wanted to stay home, but he doesn’t.) Partly it’s so challenging just because our free time at home is so limited that it’s hard to squeeze in everything we need to do without feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, but if it were just that we’d figure out how to manage. The hard part is really when one of the kids is sick. We don’t have any family around and while both our jobs are somewhat flexible,  they’re not flexible enough to allow spending a few days at home with no notice. Last winter our older child was out of school for over a week out of every month with recurrent strep. I was eight months pregnant, and after my husband came home at 5 p.m., I’d head to work and put in a nine-hour day.
I’m sure any working woman has faced these logistical struggles, but the larger struggle is that we are both interested in and committed to our careers AND our family. But as a lawyer, many jobs seem tailored to people with stay-at-home spouses who can provide full-time childcare and manage the household. That’s not my situation and I feel like even though I enjoy my job, it’s unsustainable.


I think the better way to have achieved success is to not have gone to law school in the first place.  I mean, dang, a plumber without a fixed price schedule makes more than most new law school grads: <table border=“0” cellspacing=“0” cellpadding=“0” width=“167”><tbody><tr height=“17”><td width=“167” height=“17”></td></tr></tbody></table>


One reader wrote: “many jobs seem tailored to people with stay-at-home spouses who can provide full-time childcare and manage the household.” 
I don’t have children so I don’t know how it will work with my family one day, but as a child (of 4) my parents built a small apartment off our house for  a wonderful (single) woman to live in- she helped cook and clean and watch all of us. 
It seems with 2 professional incomes this would be an affordable option; once we all aged, after 10 years with us, the woman moved back to her family and we now have a small apartment for aging grandparents.  Even if I don’t choose a live-in option, I  think I would make it a mandatory budget option to hire a ‘mother’s helper’ if I choose to have children, and both my husband and I want to keep our demanding jobs.  I’ve found the idea of a ‘live-in’ doesn’t sit well with Americans (my father is foreign-born), so I thought I would throw it out here for discussion sake.
This option doesn’t magically result in work-life balance, but I share it to specifically address the issue brought up by the comment re: stay at home parents.


Personally, I think that live in care is an excellent option.  I don’t know how I could make it work without a nanny.  The flexibility that comes from having somebody live in your home is unmatched.   I agree with your assessment that most Americans seem to have an issue with having somebody live in their home.  I can’t reconcile that with the fact that so many Americans (particularly on the East coast) have no problem sending their kids away to boarding school and making them live with strangers. 

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