"Hustle Culture" May Be Toxic For Women, But Here's Why We Still Can't Get Enough
Here are a few of the things I know about the day-to-day lives of successful women: they wake up every day with the sun (and remember, alarms are for underachievers!). Then they meditate before work. And then they answer emails before work. And then they cook their families a fresh breakfast from scratch, including a protein, before work. Then they FaceTime with a friend in Rotterdam on their way to work, and arrive looking powerful, yet stylish, yet somehow even more powerful than they were when I started typing this sentence. Then, it's 18 hours of mergers and acquisitions, strategic planning, and power lunches that seem to mostly involve beet smoothies and fistfuls of slivered almonds. At the day's end, they begin planning what they'll do with their weekly allotted three hours of personal time.
At least, that's what I've heard, in articles about the daily schedules of successful women. These articles all have titles like "How She Does It," or "Here's How We're Doing It All," or "ALL ALL SHE DOES IT ALL EVERYTHING YES EVEN THAT," and I read every single one — despite the fact that I'm not on a quest to be one of these uber-successful corporate goddesses (or even to get more slivered almonds in my diet).
And yet, I find myself negatively comparing myself these women, and I don't understand why. God knows someone has to watch the stock markets in Zurich, and it sure ain't gonna be me. So why do these articles make me feel so inadequate?
"I love reading about what habits really successful women and men have adopted in order to remain 'on top of their game,' but I also think it contributes to a sense of anxiety — am I doing enough?"
As I spoke to other women, I realized that every one had a slightly different relationship with these articles — but every one of those relationships was intense. No one, it seemed, just skimmed them the way you would an article about Meghan Markle's new hat or an innovation in zoodles; these articles provoke a reaction.
Sabrina Qiao, a senior at UPenn who describes herself as having a love-hate relationship with the articles, tells Bustle, "I love reading about what habits really successful women and men have adopted in order to remain 'on top of their game,' but I also think it contributes to a sense of anxiety — am I doing enough? Should I be waking up at 4 a.m. and doing an hour of yoga before power walking to work and answering my 10,000 emails, etc."
"I think they're designed as aspiration porn or to get rage-clicks," Lynn Bixenspan, a 39-year-old writer/comedian who's read many of these articles, tells Bustle. Bixenspan likens them to similarly voyeuristic articles, like money diaries or sex diaries. "Maybe sometimes I think I can glean some small nugget that applies to my life? But mostly it's to roll my eyes." Julie*, 35, tells Bustle that "There's also the implication [in these articles] that, instead of the system, or western society, adapting some flexibility re: work/life balance, we should radically conform ourselves to maximize earning/achieving potential ALL THE F*CKING TIME."
Of course, day-in-the-life profiles are nothing new for journalism; they've been a staple for generations, a tool used to examine the existences of celebrities and regular folks alike. That's still true today; Popula's "Me Today" series, for example, chronicles a day in the life of regular people all over the world, almost none of whom appear to be leaning very far in.
But the "how she gets it all done" profile is different, created by a variety of different trends over the past decade. Firstly, there's been the rise of "hustle porn" — Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian's term for the toxic business psychology that says true success is only available to those who have given up worldly pleasures like human interaction, sleeping six hours straight, and eating food that isn't Soylent. You can find examples of this worldview everywhere online, like Elon Musk's recent comments extolling an 80-hour work week.
"Hustle porn" articles, of course, focus on men as often as they do women, if not more often. But your standard "hustle porn" focuses on, say, an app founder who proudly spends 20 hours straight parked at her laptop, getting her business off the ground. In "how she gets it done" articles, however, there is often the lingering specter of "having it all" — the idea that to be truly successful, a woman should have a business and a personal life, both of which she executes flawlessly. In the rest of our culture, "having it all thinking" is dying a very public death — hell, Michelle Obama herself recently said, "That whole 'so you can have it all.' Nope, not at the same time." Research and think pieces alike have increasingly reflected the idea that running yourself ragged in an attempt to be taken seriously by male coworkers doesn't work, and that changing policy is the only way women can truly find equality at work.
And yet, it's impossible to not notice how the women of "how she does it all" articles ... do it all. It's a little different than having it all — they don't claim to have anything, and rarely make any philosophical statements about their cuddly domestic lives or how far they lean-in at work. But they don't ever throw their hands up in exhaustion. They don't ever say, "F it, this day sucks, I'm watching 90 Day Fiancée and I'll try again tomorrow." They just keep doing.
"In some ways, these articles are appealing because they are like a recipe: if you follow the steps, you will achieve the desired result."
On some level, this might just be realism. Transparency about the intense effort it takes to stay at the top of any field can be helpful for anyone, including those who want to get to the top, as well as those who would only do pilates before work with a gun against their head. "In some ways, these articles are appealing because they are like a recipe: if you follow the steps, you will achieve the desired result (namely, a fulfilling career along with a balanced family and social life and personal contentment),'” Jessica Fink, the Clara Shortridge Foltz Professor of Law at California Western School of Law, tells Bustle. She also observes that the articles can help show women just getting their careers off the ground "that there is a place for women in the upper ranks of various businesses."
But let's be honest. Most of us aren't reading these because we're planning to start our own business and need day-to-day operations advice. We read them to be entertained. "There's a formula to it, right?" Morra Aarons-Mele, a digital marketing expert and author of Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert's Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You'd Rather Stay Home), tells Bustle. She points out that there's a reason for all the emphasis on glamorous events and superhuman professional feats: it's more entertaining. "[These articles are] very curated," Aarons-Mele says. "I mean, in my Lifehacker [day-in-the-life profile], I am very clear that I need to spend 2 hours alone every day in order to live my best life but ... who wants to read about that? That's really boring."
But even as I feel entertained, I find that I start judging myself, too. Why don't I meditate every morning, and write a gratitude list every night? How come I can't even turn in three articles a week without 1-5 crying jags by the service elevator, when these women all have the weight of dozens of employees and millions of dollars on their shoulders, and seem to feel fine with it?
"Reading the successful/notable woman's daily schedules, with their putative brilliant time management, showily early bedtimes and lack of coffee, too healthy diets and ability to make copious and meaningful time for their families and loved ones, are a reproach to less PR-ready or shellacked women everywhere," Alissa Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America, tells Bustle. "And also a reproach if you aren’t, well, wealthy and famous."
And the level of "editing" going on in these articles — cutting the bad, stressful, or boring parts of the day — can contribute to that. "I think that what I call 'entrepreneurship porn' is really harmful and I think that the aspirational stories are harmful because they don't show reality," says Aarons-Mele. The mechanics of that flawless-looking life are often swept under the rug: "What they never talk about is the amount of money that that takes and...you never see the photo of the mom with her nanny, right?”
Alissa Quart told Bustle she'd love to see "how I do it" profiles that mention "[y]our exhaustion, political estrangement from your family members, your daily struggles with ADHD." Lynn Bixenspan says, "I would love to read one where they talk about overcoming their mental health issues or cleaning their kid's poop off the rug."
"Rarely in such articles are there substantive discussions about how such women manage such real-life complications as caring for an aging parent, dealing with a health issue, navigating often-complicated childcare arrangements."
The gap between artifice and reality can also, Fink notes, "set up unreasonable expectations," and even potentially convince readers to scale down their dreams: "reading about such a high level of performance and assuming that it is the norm or expectation might deter individuals from pursuing a field if they are not prepared to engage in such a grueling level of work."
But beyond all these issues, there's one larger one at the heart of everything: success usually looks one very specific way in these articles. It involves money, power, and vast reserves of energy. It involves no serious physical or mental health issues, no care-taking responsibilities that might preclude spending all night answering emails.
"Rarely in such articles," says Fink, "are there substantive discussions about how such women manage such real-life complications as caring for an aging parent, dealing with a health issue, navigating often-complicated childcare arrangements." They also, Fink notes, "gloss over or ignore how issues or race or sexuality can interrupt a woman’s best-laid career path."
And they can also make us feel pressure "to conform to these stereotypical expectation, even when [our] roles may not require the same contributions," Amy Quarton, associate instructor within the organizational leadership program at Maryville University, tells Bustle. "As a result, some [readers] may experience guilt or disappointment when they are unable to meet these expectations, failing to 'get it all done' like the women depicted in the articles." (raises hand)
I don't want to say, what can we do to fight back against these articles. Like, they don't even make the top 200 of pressing social issues we should be prioritizing dealing with right now. And it's true, they are entertaining, even if you're just rage-clicking. Sometimes you need to rage-click! Sometimes, it's all that's standing between you and Freight Elevator Crying Jag #6.
But it's clear they do have a toxic place in a lot of women's lives. So what can we do push back against that?
"We should ask why as women workers, we tend to blame ourselves and feel shame for our professional setbacks and economic insecurity, when so much is structurally induced," Quart tells Bustle, adding that the energy used to "do it all" could be repurposes to push for reforms to hiring discrimination.
In short, we could take all the energy we're spending feeling inadequate, and use it to interrogate a whole system that says if you want financial stability in this world, you better be willing to tuck your kids in via FaceTime, while you're in hour 10 of a shareholders meeting.
And as far as getting practical advice, Aarons-Mele has a more, well, practical tip than looking up to random millionaires: "Talk to women in your office who are older than you. Talk to real women ... Find out the nitty gritty detail" about their lives, including the parts that are really unappealing to you — because, she notes, figuring out what you don't want in your life is as important as finding out what you do.
And finally, we can realize that "doing it all" won't remove our flaws, or quiet our unruly minds, or rapture us up to some kind of Business Heaven where khaki-clad angels sing songs about our excellent Excel skills. It'll just open up more room on our to-do lists. Because there's one thing all these articles always seem to leave out: no matter who you are, what you do, or how much power pilates you did before 6 a.m. today, there is always more to do.
*Some names have been changed to protect their privacy.