Monday, March 30, 2009

Working Girl Reads Supergirls Speak Out

This past week Working Girl had the privilege of sitting down with Liz Funk, author of Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Crisis of Overachieving Girls. Liz's book centers around the idea of a "Supergirl" - someone who she describes as being under the impression that to be happy you have to be a size two, excel at your job, wear the coolest clothes, have the perfect boyfriend, and have gotten straight A's (in high school and college). The book delves into the world of the Supergirl and how the most dangerous effect of being a Supergirl is not only competing against other Supergirls, but competing against themselves which is a destructive habit that Liz found can often lead to depression and other emotional disorders.

Before I get to our Q&A portion, I just have to give you a breakdown of how amazing Liz is. If we're talking Supergirl, she is the definition. Liz Funk was born in 1988 (yes, that makes her 20 years old), and she is not only the author of Supergirls Speak Out, but has also has written articles for USA Today, Newsday, CosmoGIRL!, and recently appeared on the Today Show. She serves on numerous advisory boards, has great fashion sense, and loves Arrested Development. And she hasn't even graduated from college yet! Safe to say, she is a Supergirl.

WG: First off, for those of our readers who haven't read your book, how would you describe a SuperGirl?

A Supergirl is a young woman who wants to be a perfect 10 at everything she attempts. She wants to have a degree from a great college, to have a great job, to do great work and quickly ascend the corporate ladder, to be pretty, to have great friends, to have a boyfriend or a steady stream of hook-ups, and more broadly, to be charming. And on top of it all, the Supergirls want to make doing everything appear as though it comes naturally to them. And that’s where things get tricky. Often, Supergirls seek to achieve for the wrong reasons—they’re trying to find their value in being perfect, when they intellectually know that they’re demanding way too much from themselves and it’s impossible to be on top of things all the time.

WG: In your book, you call yourself a Supergirl - how do you think you became one personally? Do you think you had any particular influences on your Supergirlness? And do you ever wish you weren't a Supergirl?

When I started high school—I went to a 7th-12th grade high school, so 7th grade—I noticed that there were a lot of structures to reward high-achieving kids, like honor roll, student of the month, and annual award ceremonies, and even more implicit structures within the community where kids, particularly girls, who were high-achieving and beautiful and charming got the most attention. This really spurred my desire to want to do well in school, get my career started, and win others over. Also, to be perfectly honest, I have hair that is naturally dishwater-brown, but when I started having my hair bleached blonde when I was 17, I got so much more attention, and it made me work a lot more on my appearance and see my appearance as a really integral part of my identity as a Supergirl. I was also briefly anorexic in high school, and that totally sucked and was really intertwined with my achievement issues.

I often wish I wasn’t a Supergirl! I often have a hard time relaxing, I let work stress pollute my relaxation time, and I very rarely get drunk because I don’t want to devote the day after a fun night out to vegging on the couch with a hangover. I’m a work-in-progress, though: I’m really actively working to remedy my Supergirl drive and find a healthy balance between motivation and work, and relaxation and play.

WG: One person you interviewed in your chapter on working, Yolanda, talked about the concept of not apologizing at work because it makes you appear weak. Can you elaborate on this point and do you agree with her?

I do agree with Yolanda, to an extent. While I think that if you did in fact screw up and something bad happened because of your mistake, you probably should apologize, especially if you’re not the only one affected by the problem. However, young women are frequently the lowest on the totem pole in the office, and frequently they can be scapegoated by their superiors and expected to take the blame for things they played no role in. That’s a point where young women need to assert themselves, stand behind their work, and not apologize. I once had a boss make me apologize to her for a problem we were dealing with, and by apologizing, the problem became my fault, even though it really wasn’t in the first place! It’s situations like those where girls need to overcome their need to please others and charm authority figures, and put their reputations first. Personally, I’m a big apologizer and it’s one thing that I really don’t like about myself and that I’m working on.

WG: You discuss feminity in the workplace a lot in your book, in your research did you find that there is room for feminity or do you think women need to appear more masculine to succeed?

Femininity is an extremely powerful tool; sex is not. I think that young women can absolutely be feminine in the office and can use their femininity to help them: I think women are natural negotiators, they work well with others in intimate settings and often easily meet people where they’re at, and I think that they are very perceptive and intuitive… all because of femininity! I invite women to embrace their gender as they approach work! When it comes to clothes, things can get tricky. You don’t need to dress like Miranda Hobbes for work, but you shouldn’t dress like Carrie Bradshaw, either. Yolanda, the banker who I followed for my book, had great work clothes; she would wear nice black pants that looked sleek and fit her well, nice heels, designer glasses, a snug blazer, and a shirt that maybe had a bit more pizzazz than the rest of her outfit. Also, she usually had one—just one—designer piece on her person, like a nice bag or a simple piece of jewelry. But Yolanda was also in a majorly male-dominated corporation. I think girls who work at non-profits and in the media have a lot more flexibility, simply because the throngs of women who proceeded them have already done that negotiating for them.

WG: Do you believe women have to adapt more to leaving college and entering the working world than men do?

That’s a great question. I hesitate to say yes, because there’s all these silly movies like Knocked Up and You, Me, and Dupree (not that I don’t love these silly movies!) that posit that when women overachieve, guys in turn become lazy bums who play video games and smoke weed all day. But I do think that girls make the transition a little better, simply because I think that girls are itching to enter the grown-up world and prove themselves to the industries they want to work in when they graduate, whereas guys seem to get jobs because it’s time.

WG: How important would you say fashion/looking good is to a career?

I wish it mattered less, but I think it does. I’m a big fan of the web-site, a community for aspiring magazine and newspaper editors, and I remember a few years ago, we had a big discussion on the message boards about how being pretty and well-groomed plays a big role in landing an internship, and ultimately, most agreed that being pretty and fun to chat with over the cubicle dividers is a big part of getting hired. I think that there is much more to being charming and personable than being good looking, however, and I challenge Working Girls everywhere to put down the mascara wand and instead be as authentic and energetic as possible on the job.

WG: What is your advice to Supergirls out there who after reading your book still want to do it all but without the side effects - how can we still achieve this status without having a mental breakdown?

Supergirls need to admit that there is a problem before they can remedy the problem! Girls need to admit to themselves that they’re living inauthetnically and that they’re achieving for the wrong reasons. They need to admit to themselves that they’re trying to be perfect and that it’s not working. Girls need to let themselves be imperfect, and they need to figure out why they matter outside of what they accomplish, what they look like, and how others perceive them. Girls neeed to spend more time alone with their thoughts and they need to develop a relationship with themselves! Here’s a baby step: I encourage working girls everywhere, for one week, to not listen to music, read, or play with their phones during their commute to work. I predict that they’ll find that they think about a ton of interesting things, and perhaps stumble upon some thoughts that really make them think about how they’re living their lives and what they could do differently to be happier and healthier. Seriously, I hate to say it, but ditch the iPod, and you’ll find that you’re such a pensive person!

WG: You expressed a sense of disappointment in yourself - or really a feeling of 'this still isn't good enough' even though you are very successful. Do you still feel this way even after writing this book and doing the research?

Yes. Wah. This has really been the ride of my life and I’m so grateful to have achieved the goal of writing a book (and finally meeting Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera on the TODAY Show!), but I’m always going to expect more from myself. I’m a Supergirl, after all!

WG: Why do you think it is so hard for Supergirls to adapt to corporate world?

Great question! Part of the problem is that the corporate world doesn’t exactly reward high-achievers the way college does. There is less return on the time and energy investment than there is in college. It’s like, in school, if you study and you do extra credit, you’re very likely to get an A. But there’s no guarantee for success in the corporate world, and success comes about much more slowly! Also, on some level, the corporate world is at odds with our humanity: sometimes, you have to hide your emotions, pretend to like people you don’t, and put in 100% on days when you’re just not feeling it. When you’re younger, you can be more in tune with your needs and desires, but when you’re a grown-up, you have to go to work!

It’s not all gloom-and-doom, though, and I think that the twenties are a great time for young women to figure out who they are and why they matter and why they’re special, and once that happens, they’ll experience 300% more happiness in almost every area of their lives. As a recovering Supergirl, I’m inclined to guarantee it.


Dollface said...

cute book.. my question for her is, how she got started with her book.. did she find a publisher so easy, etc..... would love to know!! xoxo

Amber said...

Great interview. I'm a third-year journalism and public relations major and I absolutely cannot wait to graduate and start working and climbing the corporate ladder. I find myself having "supergirl" tendencies sometimes, but usually manage to keep them in check.

Thanks for making me aware of this book, I'll have to check it out!

Somewhere In Between said...

Thanks for sharing the interview. I had briefly seen part of the segment on the Today Show, and it piqued my interest; however, I'm not as convinced now after reading Liz's responses to your questions. I feel like she contradicts herself quite a bit - though I am interested in the type of research she conducted to write her book.

golublog said...

This book sounds great.

lisa said...

Thanks for the fantastic interview! I'll have to check out this book now because I recognized some of the Supergirl symptoms the author talked about in myself lol.

High-heel gal said...

Wow, I def. need to check out this book!

Carissa said...

great post! thanks for sharing. I am in awe that Liz is just 20 years old! amazing. It's funny how, while her book serves as a kind of warning against being a Supergirl, she admits to being one herself. or at least, a work in progress. I sometimes get into Supergirl mode myself, but I can usually scale it back. I will have to check out the book.

Bridget said...

Great interview! It's good to know I'm not the only person who struggles to be a 'supergirl' when being a regular woman would be okay, too.

Liz Funk said...


It's a funny story, actually: half of my publishing success came from buying a copy of Getting Your Book Published for Dummies and reading it cover to cover. It's the best $15 I ever spent--and it's a great book that covers the ins-and-outs of book publishing. The other half was pure networking and meeting other writers in New York who taught me about finding an agent and shopping a book proposal; I was lucky to have some good mentors.

Hope this helps! And thanks to WG2 for a great interview!

Liz Funk

Dans said...

Love the interview!

The Art of Living said...

Great post. I think I will order this book!

Amy said...

Great interview, I read the book last week and loved it - very well written, and very insightful. Some very scary statistics too though.

Jamie said...

Thanks for the interview--definitely has me intrigued about the book.