The Myth of Making It

A Workplace Reckoning

About the Book

We can bury the girlboss, but what comes next? The former executive editor of Teen Vogue tells the story of her personal workplace reckoning and argues for collective responsibility to reimagine work as we know it.

“One of the smartest voices we have on gender, power, capitalist exploitation, and the entrenched inequities of the workplace.”—Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad


“As I sat in the front row that day, I was 80 percent faking it with a 100-percent-real Gucci bag.” Samhita Mukhopadhyay had finally made it: she had her dream job, dream clothes—dream life. But time and time again, she found herself sacrificing time with family and friends, paying too much for lattes, and limping home after working twelve hours a day. Success didn’t come without costs, right? Or so she kept telling herself. And Mukhopadhyay wasn’t alone: Far too many of us are taught that we need to work ourselves to the bone to live a good life. That we just need to climb up the corporate ladder, to “lean in” and “hustle,” to enact change. But as Mukhopadhyay shows, these definitions of success are myths—and they are seductive ones.

Mukhopadhyay traces the origins of these myths, taking us from the sixties to the present. She forms a critical overview of workplace feminism, looking at stories from her own professional career, analysis from activists and experts, and of course, experiences of workers at different levels. As more individuals continue to question whether their professional ambitions can lead to happiness and fulfillment in the first place, Mukhopadhyay asks, What would it mean to have a liberated workplace? Mukhopadhyay emerges with a vision for a workplace culture that pays fairly, recognizes our values, and gives people access to the resources they need.

A call to action to redefine and reimagine work as we know it, The Myth of Making It is a field guide and manifesto for all of us who are tired, searching for justice, and longing to be liberated from the oppressive grip of hustle culture.
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Praise for The Myth of Making It

“Samhita Mukhopadhyay is one of the smartest voices we have on gender, power, capitalist exploitation and the entrenched inequities of the workplace.”—Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad

“With acuity, humor, and admirable candor, Samhita Mukhopadhyay delves beneath the buzzwords of workplace feminism to interrogate what it really takes for women to succeed, and why it matters we do.”—Radhika Jones, editor in chief of Vanity Fair

“’Samhita Mukhopadhyay comes neither to bury the girlboss nor to praise her. This is the book about ambition and the workplace that I’ve been waiting for: idealistic and practical, sensitive and brutally honest all at once. High-powered jobs may not live up to their promise, but this book can help us to let go of individualistic dreams and create freer, happier collective realities.”—Sarah Jaffe, author of Work Won't Love You Back

“A reexamination of the many falsehoods, misconceptions, and outright delusions about female ambition and professional achievement. If you’re burned out or simply asking ‘is this it?’ pick up this book.”—Jill Filipovic, author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk

“The Myth of Making It is a 21st century take on workplace feminism. If you’ve been wondering why your work life is deeply important to you but feels so unsatisfying, you need to read this book.”—Ann Friedman, co-author of Big Friendship

“Relatable, smart, funny, personal, incisive, and much needed. Mukhopadhyay draws connections between the past and the present and raises questions about not just how we think of work today but how we might want to reorient ourselves towards it in the future.”—Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel

“Finally, a fresh, irresistible take on our changing relationship to work and its relationship to everything else in our lives. More than myth busting, this book frees us from the false choices and false narratives of the past, giving us permission and inspiration to shape the future.”—Ai-jen Poo, president of National Domestic Workers Alliance

“Provocative and intelligent, Mukhopadhyay’s book will appeal to both feminist scholars and working women seeking more humane ways to navigate the sexist, racist, hypercapitalist minefield of the modern workplace. An incisive study of the current business landscape.”Kirkus Reviews
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Excerpt

The Myth of Making It

1

You Can’t Have It All

I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. —­Audre Lorde

The year 2015 was poised to be a great year for ambitious women: We were nearing the end of the Obama years and steadily coming out of the economic upheaval that had plagued a generation’s job prospects. Sexism was being called out in Hollywood. We weren’t yet at the reckoning that would come in 2018, but it was the year that many of the women who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault came forward, with an unforgettable image on the cover of New York magazine—­thirty-­five of his accusers in black and white, looking straight at the camera, ready for justice.

The show Younger had just hit TV screens, starring Sutton Foster as a fortysomething stay-­at-home mother named Liza Miller who, recently divorced, is preparing to get back into her career. She assumes (probably rightly) that she’s aged out of entry-­level jobs in the publishing industry, so she pretends to be a twentysomething to be taken seriously, and hijinks ensue. With friends’ help, she gives herself a fashion-­of-­the-­moment makeover: She dons perfectly frayed skinny jeans, ankle booties, and mixed prints, or cropped floral dresses and moto jackets. The perfect girlboss attire: casual but put together, high-­low combinations, the nineties throwback but formfitting (these Laura Ashley–­type dresses had waists).

Her work wife, Kelsey Peters—­played by Hilary Duff, an actual twentysomething millennial—­captured the spirit of the mid twenty-­teens, embracing feminine chic tousled blond hair with an edge, skinny jeans paired with sensible blazers, and a chunky heel. She had a conventionally attractive boyfriend and a great career, but she could also and regularly would do shots. Miller learns quickly that this generation believes they can have it all and have it all in pink: enjoy the wins of corporate feminism and chic city life while espousing a type of traditional femininity.

The year before Younger premiered, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published We Should All Be Feminists, a book-­length essay based on a talk she had given, and Beyoncé—­who had sampled Adichie’s talk for her single “***Flawless”—­performed at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, her unmistakable silhouette appearing under a white blaze of letters spelling it out: feminist. An indelible image, and it seemed like, in public and in private, more and more women were embracing the identity. Meanwhile, big tech, acting on the deep inequality rife in their companies, had started to broaden their parental leave policies. Women-­owned and -­led businesses were being invested in, and women entrepreneurs were encouraged to take the leap. In 2015, Elizabeth Holmes was named by Forbes as the youngest self-­made woman billionaire. In politics, Hillary Clinton was poised to be the front-­runner in the next presidential election, and Elizabeth Warren was gearing up to be her most serious opposition. (Donald Trump? He’d announced his run, but it seemed like a long shot.)

We christened 2014 a certifiable year of women (Time magazine called it the best year for women “since the dawn of time”), and we were only going up from there. Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists joined Sophia Amoruso’s #Girlboss on the shelves—­one of many books advising women on how they might take their feminist principles to work. In a pithy review for The New York Times, Erin Gloria Ryan observed, “Being anti-­establishment is the old cool. The new cool is playing by your own rules and still winning by their standards.”

Sexism was out; women’s ambition was in.

At the time, I was working at the National Women’s Business Council—­a federal advisory council to the Obama administration that ensured that federal money was being directed to women-owned businesses. The stats were exciting: As of 2014, 9.1 million women were running their own businesses, and that number was getting bigger every day. While women struggled to earn as much investment as their male counterparts, the “she-­conomy” was growing, and lady-­led, “girl power”–­vibed enterprises were coming into being. The girlboss era was upon us, and we were swallowing it hook, line, and sinker.

When I think about this era, what I remember is a heady and very sincere optimism about what the future held. Even I, an often-­cynical Gen Xer about the same age as Sutton Foster’s character in Younger, was giddy about it. It felt like a time when my fellow women, femmes, and I might do anything and have anything. And if there were things we didn’t have, well, that’s because we’d chosen not to have them. No partner? That’s my choice! No baby? Chose that, too.

In this period the stuffy idea of acting like a man to win in a man’s world registered as blaringly outdated—­in offices around the country, women were embracing a new aesthetic of femininity, born out of the belief that women would and should be recognized in the workplace. Hustling was no longer just for men in finance but also for women who worked in corporate jobs and hit that hot-­yoga class in the morning—­every morning. We were standing on the shoulders of the women who came before us, but the pantsuit was out, and frilly dresses paired with blazers were in. We were ready to work all day and all night. We had smartphones and social media and Uber and time-­management software . . . and Zappos. We were literally unstoppable.

The Sexy Gal Who Can Have It All

It was hardly the first year, first decade, or even the first generation of women who believed that they could have it all and have it all while wearing pink. “Having it all”—­these three words have had an outsized impact on how we have talked about women, work, family, and everything else for decades. The phrase itself was popularized—­if not coined—­by proto-­girlboss Helen Gurley Brown in her 1982 book, Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money—­Even If You’re Starting With Nothing. At the time the book came out, Brown was sixty and famous for her long reign as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine (which under her tenure had been revamped into a type of work-­and-play bible for young working women) and for her book Sex and the Single Girl, which had launched her to fame in 1962.

A slight, waiflike woman with dark hair and eyes, she often described herself as “an ugly duckling.” And she aimed Having It All at women she termed mouseburgers: regular—­or what she called unexceptional—­women who didn’t believe they could have the things that beautiful, talented women with rich husbands had. (It was a decidedly groundbreaking message at the time.)

Gurley Brown certainly had her own rags-­to-­riches story. She was born in 1922 in Green Forest, Arkansas, where her father was involved in local politics. He moved the family to Little Rock before dying tragically when she was ten years old. He left her mother behind to parent two children with no solid income. Devastated by the loss, her mother moved the family to Los Angeles, California. The move changed the young girl’s life. As journalist Suzi Parker writes in The Washington Post, “Brown knew she didn’t have looks on her side . . . but she had brains.” In 1939, Brown graduated as valedictorian of her Los Angeles high school.

Bright and unstoppable, Brown—­still Gurley at that point—­skipped college but worked her way up the corporate ladder, first in secretarial jobs and then as an advertising copywriter. By early 1960, she was the highest-­paid female copywriter in California. As one of her biographers, Brooke Hauser, detailed, Brown had a slew of love affairs and was unapologetic about sometimes having sex with colleagues or even the boss, if needed. One of her married bosses paid her rent for a stint, which helped her support herself, struggling, widowed mother, and her sister, who had been paralyzed by polio.

The weaponization of her sexuality, as she saw it, was core to her self-­expression and identity. As she often wrote about herself, she was not considered particularly attractive—­an opinion that’s repeated ad nauseam in anything written about her or her life.

Eventually, a movie producer and former managing editor of Cosmopolitan named David Brown, who was twice divorced and known to date starlets, ended up on her radar. After a career as a journalist, he had been hired in the early 1950s at Twentieth Century Fox to head up the story department. After Gurley asked a friend for a setup, they dated and eventually married in 1959, when she was thirty-­seven. David encouraged her to pursue her passion for writing and consider publishing an advice book, so she wrote and published Sex and the Single Girl—­her first book, twenty years prior to Having It All—­despite not being single or really a “girl.”
Random House Publishing Group