Why being a workaholic is the only socially acceptable addiction for women

From a young age girls are taught to work hard and be financially independent, but the realities of work-life balance are not quite as they are portrayed on popular TV shows

Julianna Marguiles in 'The Good Wife.'
Julianna Marguiles in 'The Good Wife.'

Those of us who were born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up with the idea of progress and firmly believed that if we studied and worked hard enough, we could be successful like the television characters Ally McBeal (from the show with the same name), Alicia Florrick (The Good Wife) or Carrie Bradshaw (Sex and the City). The narratives in early 21st-century fiction drew on a female stereotype where a woman’s identity and value was built around her role in the capitalist system.

So while McBeal did some serious overtime to prove that she was more than just a lawyer in a miniskirt, Bradshaw wrote her newspaper column anywhere, anytime. There were no schedules to live by. Both characters earned the kind of money that made them financially independent and allowed them to live in expensive city centers. This appealed to teenage viewers who wanted to grow up to be financially independent too. The message between the lines was that if you wanted to be financially successful and independent, you had to live for work.

When we are young we work for free because we need to prove our talent in exchange for a future job contract. When we are no longer so young we keep putting in extra hours because we don’t want to be left behind if we have children. And when we are 48 and should be peacefully enjoying everything we have gained, we continue to strive for recognition because we don’t want to get fired after so many years of hard work just because the company wants a “fresher” vision. In other words, we don’t want to get kicked out of the market because we’re seen as too old.

“The main problem with being addicted to work is that it’s not even considered an addiction. Most of the time, people say they are workaholics with a smile on their face,” says Jara Pérez, a psychologist specializing in systemic and transfeminist therapy. “What’s more, in the current system, it is viewed in a positive light if, besides your paid job at a company, you have professional projects to spend your free time on. That is why addiction to work does not define itself as such. Society does not see it as a problem that we use to cover up other problems, but rather the opposite: it is linked to the idea of success.”

If, to these cultural references of the past two decades, we add a job market that’s been defined by precarious conditions since the financial crisis of 2008, we have all the ingredients to develop a toxic relationship with work. Fear of losing that long-term contract makes us agree to have a meeting outside working hours or take a work call on weekends. We say yes to everything because we’d rather do that than live without the financial independence to make our own decisions.

“We are very afraid of being economically dependent,” adds Pérez. “When we are forced to deal with a period of financial vulnerability due to a dismissal, sick leave or a job-retention scheme, it often triggers that fear inside of us. And even though we consciously trust our partners not to use that vulnerability to exercise power over us, there is such a long history of abuse against women that we feel all that fear the moment we start feeling dependent.”

In fact, we are so scared that we make ourselves believe that merit on its own will break the glass ceiling and close the gender gap. And we keep doing overtime because capitalist culture has instilled in us the idea that our identity is built on our work-related achievements.

“Historically, a woman’s value was built on the concept of caregiving, but now, with women’s liberation through the job market, work also adds value to us. But when our identity is tied to a career, what’s at stake is a lot more than financial independence, and we end up becoming a brand. If our work fails, we end up with the feeling that our social capital is not valid,” says Pérez.

Social media increase the pressure

Writers like Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, say that with the advent of social media it has become increasingly hard to escape the narrative linking one’s identity to work. We live in a world where we reveal our career on our Instagram profile and use a job-searching network even if we already have a job. LinkedIn not only whitewashes addiction to work, it actually encourages it, sending alerts and emails to make sure you never let your guard down, because you never know when a new offer might pop up for a better job than the one you’ve got now.

And just like browsing through real estate websites often leads us to imagine what our life might be like if we lived in that home we can’t afford, starting a job-selection process makes us project what life would be like if we were picked for that well-paid job that’s in such high demand. We figure it would mean we’ve finally made it after all that effort. And that’s a sure sign that we’ve been seduced by capitalism.

But in the real world, things have a way of turning out not quite as expected. Nobody told us that all that hard work that defined a successful woman in all those TV shows probably came at a high personal cost measured in Valium pills. And since we are not Carrie Bradshaw or Ally McBeal, we will not go out for a Cosmopolitan after leaving the office at 9.30pm. More likely than not, we’ll head straight for the convenience store to pick up a bag of salad and some ready-made hummus to have for dinner at home.

More vulnerable

It should come as no surprise that the consumption of anxiolytics is a direct consequence of our addiction to work. Statistics show that women consume twice as much psychoactive medication as men. According to the experts, they are subjected to greater pressure and are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.

Although we were sold on the idea of earning success through sheer talent, women have to deal with structural problems in the job market: we earn less for the same work, and this means less decision-making power.

“To me, self-exploitation is born out of a need to compensate with more work for the feeling of a lack of opportunities. I feel I have to work twice as hard to achieve half of what men achieve,” notes Olga Iglesias, a Spanish scriptwriter who co-authored the play Cómo hemos llegado hasta aquí (or, How we got here).

Pérez says that, at one point, realizing that meritocracy does not exist is just one more step in the life of an adult woman. “We have to accept that this idea does not exist,” she says. “Trying again and again even though our expectations for success are broken is what leads to burnout.”

New strategies may be required, says Pérez, such as “realizing that we are valuable beyond the professional sphere.”

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