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Friday, 14 September 2012

Can anyone really have it all, let alone women?

I was asked the other day how I fit everything in. The answer is that I don't. I make compromises all the time. I sometimes feel I can't concentrate on work because I'm worried about my family. I sometimes don't have my full attention on home because I'm thinking about work. Sometimes, I go to bed at the same time as the children because I'm just plain exhausted. I wish I was more organised. I wish I was more tidy. I wish I had thought of Facebook.

In the network I belong to at work, there's always a lot of chat about whether women can "have it all". I hate the phrase, personally. If you haven't encountered it, then a quick Google search will reveal a panoply of articles about the trials of being a modern woman with a full-time job and family.

My first annoyance is that it's such a loosely defined phrase. How can I know if I have it all if you haven't defined "all"? Such an ill-defined phrase is like an airbrushed film star, completely unattainable by normal humans. You'll always assume that it's something better than what you have.

My second and more profound frustration with the phrase is that implies that for decades men have been "having it all" in terms of balancing work with family life, and that somehow women are failing to do successfully what men have done forever.

I don't know about you, but my childhood was not replete with professional fathers playing a full role in the parenting of their children. There wasn't some halcyon era when a high-level job in politics, business, or academia was compatible with leaving at 14:45 because your child-care had fallen through, or just nipping out pick up the kids from French class. Most of those fathers had wives who'd taken a break from their career, and were fully engaged in being a full-time mother.

So, things have changed nowadays, right? Now, both parents can take a full-time job, and the workplace is flexible enough to accommodate. It's easy to raise a family when you both work all week, right? People who can't make it work are the problem, aren't they? Mothers who find they forget a swimming kit because they were thinking about a board presentation are the failure, aren't they? Men are judged just as fairly on their ability to fully participate in their children's lives, aren't they?

Well, no. I've been quietly observing a pattern over the last few years. At work, I've been to a number of events which have drawn together women (and men) who are highly successful. Lawyers, doctors, board members, business executives. I've taken notes. They've talked about what made them successful, they've talked about how hard it is to get to the top of their respective businesses.

And do you know what? Almost every single one of the women has said the following phrase, albeit in a different way. I've even found myself saying this phrase:

"Well, I've been really lucky, because my husband and I agreed that I would focus on my career, and he would be the main carer of the children."

Many of them said luck. Many of them called out that specific fact as the reason they had been able to be successful. Many of them focused on the fact that they were happier going to work knowing how well their family was looked after.

Not a single one of the men said that their wives had enabled their success, even though their wives had done for them exactly what these husbands had done for the successful women. They did not feel the need to explain how they had ensured their family was looked after. It didn't even seem to cross their mind.

It's really made me think. Getting to the pinnacle of any career is very, very hard. Too often, women look at other people above them and think, "How is she/he balancing family life so well? I find it so hard." They ask, "What am I doing wrong?". All of this is underlined by women in the spotlight showing how amazing they are at being a Mum, whilst also carving a successful career as a businesswoman, or say, actress. Gwyneth Paltrow, I am looking at you.

Too often women ask "What's wrong with me?", when they should be asking, "Why is it that so many successful women have ended up where the only way to make their career work is to simply switch roles with their husband?".

All this focus on whether women can have it all has become such an obsession with gender-diversity-in-the-workplace people that they seem to have completely forgotten that there are two sides to this equation. It's not about what's wrong with women. It's about what's wrong with work. And it's bad for both genders, and all families.


  1. "Not a single one of the men said that their wives had enabled their success..."

    Excellent observation. One of those that seem so obvious when you hear it, but you just don't blooming well hear it! Needs to be repeated often! Good on you.

  2. An excellent read.

    It's not always quite as simple as you think, though: what about when people don't want any help?

    I am genuinely concerned about my wife at the moment who is falling into the trap of "trying to do it all". She's working seven days a week, evenings and weekends, for a company that will take all it can get and gives nothing in return. As well as this she is trying to be the perfect parent and is getting by on increasingly little sleep. I seriously think she is heading for some sort of breakdown and there seems to be little I can do to stop it. I do everything I can but if I try and suggest she slows down a bit then apparently I am not being supportive. I do as much as I possibly can in terms of childcare but then she starts to resent the time that I spend with our son that she is not able to. She hates her job but seems to think that leaving would show signs of weakness. I am genuinely perplexed as to what I can do, and meantime the stress and strain continues to pile up on her. She's a great mum, and amazing at what she does, but it's not sustainable. I'd genuinely be delighted to give up my job to do full-time childcare - if only she would let me.

    1. It's a difficult situation, Gareth, I would agree. I think not wanting help is part of the media message that I was talking about: to admit that you are spending more time with your son than her is to undermine those messages about motherhood that she will have been bombarded with since she was young. To admit one needs someone to do something that everyone else seems to be coping with is to feel (based on all the superwoman stereotypes in every tv show and advert) that you are a failure.

      Also, I didn't talk about other people's reactions to our set up, where Andrew stays at home, but it does opens the woman up to unsolicited criticism from family, friends, and workmates. Everyone has an opinion when you're doing something different, and it can get very wearing to hear it from them. It feels like you are constantly defending yourself, and sometimes it can make you resent your partner for putting you in a position where you stand out as different. I didn't feel that - I relished the opportunity to challenge people's prejudices and assumptions, but I have heard about others who have resented it.

      I'd love to be able to offer some advice on what you can do, but the thing that worked for (Andrew at home), is the very thing she is resistant to!

      I guess my only suggestion would be, rather than suggesting she's doing too much and she slows down, how about sitting down as a couple and talking about short, medium, and long-term plans for both of you, and then discussing how each person can provide support to enable it to happen for the other?

      Then, rather than her hearing, "I want to limit what you do" (even if that's NEVER what you said or intended to say!), perhaps she will hear, "I want to support you to do as much as you want."

      Perhaps if you make it clear that you want to enable her to focus as much time on her career as possible, then she might see that you taking on more childcare would support her as a working mother, rather than undermine her.

      Oh, also, one of the most important aspects of flexible working, unusual family arrangements, in my experience is role models. The woman I know who come from the most traditional backgrounds, and are surrounded by people in traditional roles, have been the most resistant.

      Would it help if she saw it a different model work somewhere else? Out of curiosity, what field does she work in?

    2. Also, if my advice is not welcome, and you just commented "for noting" then please ignore the above, and I will remove my nose firmly from your business!

  3. Yes, you're right on pretty much every front there. She works in IT, so an almost totally male-dominated environment, and as she is also a member of an ethnic minority and looks significantly younger than her years, she often seems to be fighting the cause against sexism, ageism and racism simultaneously. I have enormous respect for what she has achieved (which, for the record, is a very senior role that she is exceptionally good at).

    Home life is complicated by the fact that we have been trying to conceive for a couple of years and it isn't really happening (it also took a long time first time around) and that has kind of put job plans on hold as she understandably doesn't want to move jobs and then immediately fall pregnant. Personally I am convinced her enormously high stress levels are not helping with this process but that's just my opinion, I guess.

    Your part about traditional backgrounds did make me laugh though... nail on head there. Her parents were (and are) extraordinarily harsh on her and I'm certain it's led to her current "must give 110% at everything" approach.

    That said, we've all had a nice day today. The first for a long while where she hasn't had to work at all. And I will say that no aspect of the current situation is filtering down to our son at all, he is a delightful child who gets as much attention as he possibly can from both his parents. :)

    Thanks for allowing me the opportunity to vent. Sometimes that, in itself, is enough.

  4. I wondered - I'm in IT too (in a bank, not known for their female-friendly history), and am often mistaken for a grad. It seems to be a theme. I'm not of an ethnic minority, so I, by luck of birth alone don't have that cross to bear too.

    Interestingly, I've read some studies which say that people attribute women's success in a traditionally male-dominated role to luck, not skill. Whereas a man making the crossover into a female role successfully will have it attributed to skill. So it sounds like she and I are in the same boat - even if you do the job well they still don't give you the credit for it! You have to shout so loudly to make sure people know it was you, and you did do a good job, and it wasn't just a mistake. I'm not a natural bragger, so that can be tough!

    Anyway I'm glad you all had a nice day, and do feel free to pop in and vent at any time!