The gender of success

Each year a major magazine for women devotes an entire issue to the topic of success and profiles 10 women who epitomize this concept. After diligently saving these special issues for several years and admiring the role models, I began to notice an ominous pattern. The successful women were those who had careers in heretofore male fields.

Where were the women who were outstanding in teaching, nursing, or other career fields regarded as ''female''? They were conspicuously absent and remained so in forthcoming issues. The one time that a teacher did appear, she held a PhD in economics and was a professor at a distinguished Ivy League college. The message was clear: only those women most unlike their traditional sisters are worthy of being considered successful.

Where does that leave the very successful women in the so-called service professions? Are they not successful, even when they lead happy, fulfilling lives that make a significant difference in the lives of countless other people? Have we been defining success in the wrong terms? Does the idea of success - in itself - include the requirement that a woman has broken through that previously solid barrier of prejudice that prevented her from reaching financial heights and power in such fields as engineering, architecture, law or business? Should women in traditional career fields be ignored, lest their younger sisters do something so gauche as choose a ''female'' career when the 1980s offer latitude unknown to their older sisters?

This new philosophy of success has so permeated the helping professions that many women who would otherwise be drawn to them eschew them in favor of more ''acceptable'' fields. The teaching profession is not drawing the better minds from the ranks of today's college women - as it once did - as evidenced by test scores and college grades of those entering the profession. The bright young women of today are pointed in other directions where they can command high salaries and high visibility, due to the lesser number of females in these fields. Many competent women leave the teaching profession annually to take jobs in the private sector, where talent - not merely seniority - is recognized. Similar circumstances prevail in other female-dominated professions.

This notion of aping men is likewise found in the dress-for-success look widely depicted in women's magazines. The successful women are shown wearing two-piece (if not three-piece) suits, tailored shirts, and carrying the obligatory attache case. They are schooled in what to say and eat as well, in order that ''feminine'' characteristics do not intrude in the ''male'' domain of business and high finance. Prof. Henry Higgins of ''My Fair Lady'' would undoubtedly rejoice to find today's women ''more like a man.''

The women's movement, which has ac-complished so much for so many, must share in the guilt of confusing today's young women. With the not-so-subtle message that ''male'' skills are preferable to ''female'' skills, it has siphoned off talent and expertise from certain areas of employment.

Maybe it's time for the news media, particularly the women's media, to proclaim that success is really ''self-actualization, being the best 'me' I can possibly be while continuing to grow and learn,'' as one woman has put it. Maybe it's time to realize that success, after all, has no gender.

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