Remember The Special Place in Hell?

Two weeks ago at the launch of Who Says It’s a Man’s World, I shared the “real” reason I write about career success. I decided to talk about it because, for years, whenever I was asked in interviews how I got started in this work, my answer was pretty much the same:

I graduated from college and – surprise! – didn’t know jack about how to be a professional. But…. never fear. I had a wonderful mentor-to-the-rescue who took me under his wing and, being SO inspired by the game-changing lessons I learned from him, I wanted to share them with others.

Ta-da.

A nice, clean soundbite that made producers happy. And while that answer is certainly true, there’s another layer to the story that’s not quite so cheery.

My mother.

My mother never had a career and, as a result, she hasn’t always had options. When she was younger, being financially dependent led her to stay with abusive men – one of whom vanished with her eldest daughters for ten years. Poof. Gone. Just like that.

Can you imagine?

While still deeply heartbroken obviously, I’m happy to say the clouds did part long enough for my mother to catch a glimpse of sunshine in her life. In other words, she finally met a nice guy. He had the well-callused hands of the working man he would always be, but he loved her and that was enough for two decades.

Until the phone rang.

“We’re so sorry Mrs. Cook, but James died of a heart attack on site this morning.”

Watching my mother pick up the financial pieces of her life over and over again is why I talk about careers and, frankly, why I’ve worked so hard in my own. My husband is an amazing man and I love him dearly, but if he left me tomorrow, I could stand on my feet. I tripled my salary in eight years so – yes – I’d be fine.

On this International Women’s Day, there will no doubt be tons of media coverage on the journey of women around the world. We will high-five our successes and peer deeply into what’s “holding us back.” Is it inner glass ceilings, outer glass ceilings, inflexible work policies (Good looking out Marissa Mayer!) or the difficulty of “balance” for working moms?

Of course, it’s all of the above.

Elevating women is a multi-pronged issue and so it sometimes feels “too big” to tackle. But today – especially today – know that there is something you can do.

Help.

Reach out to a woman in your life. Take her to lunch and listen. Tell her she’s doing a good job. Help her find a good job. Be present.

Madeleine Albright famously said “There’s a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.” And for every woman I help in the workforce – I think about my mother. I think about how her struggles were not all in vain because they put a fire in me to lift others in a way she could not lift herself. So as we celebrate today, let this also be the moment we decide to stop complaining about the problem and be part of the solution. It is no longer enough to be activists from the sidelines.

Go on. Get your hands dirty.

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