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Women and success: Where’s the honesty?

July 5, 2012, 3:02 PM UTC

There is no single sweeping solution that will help all women. And there’s no reason there should be.

By Amanda Pouchot

FORTUNE — It’s a broken record at this point: the dearth of women on boards of tech companies (or on any boards for that matter); that less than 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women; that women make 77 cents to a man’s dollar. Yes, we’ve heard. There are “Women’s Issues” in the workplace, and they have taken a new turn in recent months. While less publicized, we know the research: Companies that are forward-thinking enough to include women in decision-making tend to flaunt better bottom lines, happier employees, and more socially-conscious businesses. That’s all great, but what about women at the other companies? You know, the companies that aren’t as focused on creating diverse leadership teams.

In my first meeting as an analyst at McKinsey in 2008, I didn’t speak. Afraid that I would sound stupid, I sat there quietly. I didn’t believe that I had anything worthy to say, and I didn’t know if anyone would care about my point of view. Where did this insecurity come from?

Women face barriers when climbing to the top, but it’s not always on those last few rungs. Former Hillary Clinton aide Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” focused on women who feel like they must bow out of their careers to start a family. While at 26 I can’t pretend to know what it will be like to have a child and a career, I can say as the daughter of a working single mother (a sociologist to boot) I know I will face tough choices down the line. And most importantly I know the importance of not judging other women’s life decisions. Slaughter’s article and many other voices in this “women’s space” suggest remedies like broad-based social change, 50/50 parenting, and flexible hours.

All of those things place the responsibility on the institutions. In a perfect world, that would be enough. But cultural change often runs at a glacial pace. We need to stop pretending that getting more women to the top is going to magically happen by relying on several women asking for change and launching fiery attacks at companies that don’t. Sure, it’s a step in the right direction to look at how we change the institutions that employ us, but we need to shift toward collaborative conversations with businesswomen of all types. And we need to focus more on actionable solutions and skills that we can build to combat the institutional biases towards women’s ascent to the top.

The typical work-life conversations are helpful, but they exclude huge numbers of women: single mothers, those without children, and those just starting out their careers (with babies not even a blip on their radar). Focusing more on providing career strategies to women throughout their careers will set them up for success. That involves honestly discussing the approaches that work and those that fail — beyond the usual veneer — and without being ashamed of failure. (Nobody’s perfect.)

If women don’t feel that there are currently safe spaces to share, this is where we need to start; it’s time to create those environments, online and off.

There is no single sweeping solution that will help all women. And there’s no reason there should be. Having a diverse array of opinions is a sign of life within the community of professional women, not a symbol of disarray or cattiness. And knowing about the different paths and options can only help younger women starting their careers. Attacking one another and those of the opposite sex will not. It all goes back to the idea of safe spaces – we need to be able to have open and honest discussions, and we need to respect those who we disagree with, not attack them.

I need to know that if I do fail, it is okay. That I will get up and bounce back, just as Gilt Groupe Chairman Susan Lyne did after getting let go from her position as president of ABC Entertainment in 2004. I need to hear that being upset, facing impossible work-life decisions, feeling like a fraud, or making mistakes is all a part of the journey to reaching the top.

Sharing these stories doesn’t make professional women weak. In fact, it shows strength. I need to hear the stories of women who have made it to the top rather than the complaints that there aren’t enough of them there. Complaining teaches me nothing, but honest and open role models give me an insight into the difficulties I will face. And most of all, these women’s honest stories let me know that while I may feel alone at times, I am not.

Amanda Pouchot co-founded The Levo League with Caroline Ghosn.