They smile confidently out of the pages of life style sections and magazines like Working Woman and Savvy - executive women on their way up in corporate America. Expensively dressed and carefully coiffed, they appear as shining examples of female success and happiness, 1980s style. Yet for many upper-echelon women, success is not always the sweet victory it is portrayed. A new study of 250 executive women reveals a somber mood of alienation, loneliness, and fear - lives burdened with problems that male counterparts do not share.
``The public's impressions of executive women remain false,'' says Edith Gilson, author of ``Unnecessary Choices: The Hidden Life of the Executive Woman'' (William Morrow, $16.95). ``I see too many women drop out, burn out, become angry.''
During an interview in her office at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, where she is a senior vice-president, Ms. Gilson discusses the results of her study, which she describes as the most representative survey of its kind.
The good news, she reports, is that the majority of respondents judge themselves to be successful.
But then she delivers the bad news: Despite this success, an astonishing 7 out of 10 upper-level women are generally unhappy with their careers. Much of their dissatisfaction stems from feeling that they are underpaid. Nearly 90 percent also think they lack the authority they need to accomplish their tasks.
Many of these women, Gilson adds, struggle with low self-esteem, a profound lack of confidence, and overwhelming isolation from each other, from men, and from friends. This ``self-exile'' contributes to a lopsided focus on their careers and makes executive women ``strangers in a strange land.''
It also produces resentment. Executive women's ``most fervently held belief,'' Gilson says, is ``that men don't have to try as hard as women do to succeed.''
To compensate for their own perceived inadequacies, many of these women attempt to imitate men. The biggest mistake women make, she emphasizes, is believing that traditionally ``feminine'' qualities - such as empathy, warmth, generosity, and affection - can't contribute to advancement.
``We need a touch of caring - people really appreciate being appreciated,'' she says.
Gilson warns against ``blindly following men's ways'' - their policies and behavior - and argues for an approach that allows women to express themselves and feel ``proud and good about being female.''
Ironically, this call for individuality comes at a time of corporate retrenchment and ``downsizing.'' Books with titles like ``Corporate Warriors'' and ``Corporate Combat'' emphasize a macho style of leadership and behavior.
``Business is war, and it is competitive,'' Gilson admits. ``Possibly what many successful women have done is recognize that quite clearly and say, `I also must be a warrior and make a fist and grin and be able to cut throats.' I think many of them have geared themselves to take on that personality,'' thus promoting images of women as Amazons.
That approach, she maintains, is wrong. ``I believe strongly in differences. We are different.
``In business, men are motivated by winning and conquering. Regardless of what it costs, you have to win. Women are motivated by the quality of the work they produce. I'm assuming, for a moment, that quality still wins, so in the end we will be much better off. American business will have to adapt itself to incorporate some of the quality in pursuit of conquering or success.
``Service industries are a very big part of our economy,'' she continues. ``Quality matters. People matter. Intuition matters. In all of those industries, women do very well. I have great hope that as those industries become a larger part of our economy, there will be more room for the quality that women bring with them to the professions.''
Beyond the work-related difficulties women experience, Gilson finds even more troubling challenges in executive women's personal lives. Only 48 percent of the women responding to her study are married, compared with 96 percent of male executives. The odds that an executive woman will never marry are four times greater than for the average American woman. And less than half are mothers, a statistic Gilson finds ``somewhat shocking.''
``These are terrific women,'' she says, ``talented and very often filled with a sense of humor. But so few of them are reproducing.
``There is a sadness in these women,'' Gilson says. ``I think it very often is because of the losses they have experienced in their careers - the loss of not being married, having children, belonging to a family unit. They say, `I have all this money, all these clothes, but what am I doing this for?' A lot of the hard-earned money they have, they spend to be well-dressed and well-groomed for the job tomorrow.''
Nine out of 10 report that they have almost no time for friends and not enough time for family obligations or leisure activities. And the vast majority - 88 percent - say they have had to give up the comfort and convenience of living in an orderly home.
Women also tend to feel put upon when they are the major breadwinner, Gilson notes. ``Those who earn less than their husbands are happier than those who earn more,'' she writes. ``The unhappiest wives contribute more money and more energy to their homes.''
What will it take to eliminate the anger and increase these women's level of satisfaction?
``First of all,'' Gilson says, ``we must be more in tune with the generation behind us. They are not as willing to make sacrifices. If we don't make it easier for these women, we will lose them. I have much hope for the younger generation. But women like me have to set the stage to make it happen.''
To do that, she explains, women must be good mothers to their daughters, never underestimating ``the astonishing impact that an attentive, caring mother has on a woman's life. Unless we raise our daughters in loving environments, the next generation of women will be no more successful than we are.''
In addition, they must be mentors to other women in their companies. ``By mentor, I don't mean mothering. It has to be purely professional - caring, developing.''
Finally, Gilson asserts, women must stop being martyrs. They must draw boundaries in their personal lives by speaking up and negotiating for what they need. Balance is the key.
``We go from one extreme to the next,'' she says. ``First, there was the perfect housewife. Nobody could do that. Now it is the perfect success,'' which is equally unrealistic.
``There must be a middle territory. If we can be ourselves and not go to extremes - either the sex symbol or the Amazon - and accomplish professional satisfaction and personal success, that will give us a sense of pride.''