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Sallie Krawcheck: How Celebrating Women’s Success Can Actually Hurt Their Careers

October 17, 2016, 11:30 AM UTC
Photograph by A.E. Fletcher Photography, www.aefletcher.com

Sallie Krawcheck knows a little something about what it’s like to be a high-profile executive—and, to be more specific, a high-profile female executive. Over the course of her career, first on Wall Street and now as an entrepreneur, she made countless TV appearances, graced the covers of magazines, and was named to many media lists of the best and brightest—including an eight-year stint on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list.

Looking back at those very public accolades, Krawcheck writes about how landing in the spotlight can actually endanger a woman’s career. As Jennifer Reingold noted in her recent story examining why women disappear from the top ranks of corporate America, the attention brings extra external scrutiny. It can also rock the boat internally, upsetting that delicate “not too tough, not too soft” balance many women work so hard to achieve.

The balancing act she describes below will no doubt sound familiar to many of the women attending our 2016 Most Powerful Women Summit, which kicks off today in Laguna Niguel, Calif. To hear what other women who’ve made it to the top have to say, tune in to our livestream on Fortune.com, starting at 8 pm Eastern tonight.

This week marks the 18th annual Fortune Most Powerful Women’s Summit, celebrating the achievements of the women on the 19th annual list of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women.

And so this week marks nearly two decades of the complex, contradictory, confusing emotions that so many of us have around “the list.”

As someone who was on the MPW list for eight years, my reaction to that recognition was some wonderment (“How did this happen? Wasn’t I just graduating from college yesterday?”), a sense of pride (“Ok, wow. I have to call my dad to tell him.”), gratitude (the old “You like me; you really like me!”)…and a distinct feeling of dread.

I remember it well. This was before I was aware of the research that shows that success and likability are damningly inversely related for women. It was before there were the stacks and stacks of studies revealing that professional women must navigate the razor thin edge of “not too hot, not too cold” behavior at work to be successful. And it was well before this country’s national pastime seemed to become critiquing Hillary Clinton’s smile—or lack thereof—as if that matters.

But even in my early days on “the list,” I still somehow sensed that professional women could be punished for receiving attention. And that the carefully calibrated balancing act that many of us developed to succeed within our companies was shifted in an important way by that recognition. The MPW list raised our profiles in the outside world, forcing that daily dance out onto a more visible stage. As a result of the accolade, any stumble, any miscalculation in the “too hot, too cold” equation, was amplified.

It also raised our visibility within the workplace, often increasing it beyond that of similarly senior peers. Many of the driven, confident women who make it onto the list quickly shift into “I’m so surprised” and “I can’t imagine how this happened” and “I don’t deserve this” mode with their peers—an attempt to restore equilibrium.

One of the key unspoken rules for women, even in the most competitive fields, has always been, “Thou shalt not appear to be seeking power.” Consider the Harvard Kennedy School study that found that, “when female politicians were described as power-seeking, participants [of both genders] experienced feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust) towards them.” Ambitious male politicians did not spark the same reaction.

In the business world, that means women are expected to keep a low profile outside their organization. Break that rule and judgement can be harsh. Case in point: Carly Fiorina. A second: Lehman’s Erin Callan. A third: Marissa Mayer. Certainly these women stumbled in their roles, but their high media profiles—and, in particular, the sense that they sought the spotlight—meant that there was something almost gleeful in the Greek chorus commentary on their downfalls.

I’ve felt the sting. Twice I’ve been brought into large banks to turn around troubled Wall Street businesses: First to Citigroup to run Smith Barney in the wake of the research scandal of the early 2000s and then Bank of America to turn around its Merrill Lynch wealth management business during the 2008 crisis. And twice my hiring was a high-profile event, orchestrated by the companies. But in one case there was a price to pay for that exposure: I will never forget a meeting with my new boss at one of these companies (the CEO who hired me having retired) in which he told me, complete with reddened face and raised voice, that I needed to get my outside profile down.

“But I haven’t done any press interviews except ones that company requested I do,” I told him. His response: “This is your problem, and you need to solve it.” And lest I somehow missed his message, he dispatched the head of HR the next day to reiterate it.

Shame is not a word I often associate with work, but in that moment I felt ashamed, believing that I had broken some unwritten rule by receiving outside attention. I can even feel the flush of that shame years later, as I write this. This was a guy who was dealing with multi-billion dollar losses at the company—but this was the one perceived transgression that I saw drive him to anger. There was something almost primal about his reaction; it felt a lot like the “moral outrage” noted above. (And, no, it didn’t end well for me at the company.)

Of course, not all bosses are this way, and I believe the pendulum is shifting. More male leaders—including guys like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Immelt—seem to intuitively recognize that greater senior-level diversity leads to better business performance. And that more visible senior-level female role models can send a much more powerful message to talented potential employees than announcing yet another new diversity initiative.

But until more progress is made, it can be hard to escape the irony that the very act of making “the list”—or becoming a high-profile professional woman in other ways—could itself increase our chances of failing.

Sallie Krawcheck is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women. You can request an invitation here. She is the former CEO of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Smith Barney.