A few months back I made a momentous decision. I decided to leave the company where I had worked for 12 years (ie since I was young) and set sail on the choppy seas of being a freelance. This is my first week of living that decision. Whilst my head is spinning and I’m rattling between excitement and fear, sometimes you just have to grab life with two hands and have a bit of a tussle.
Since the brood arrived, I’ve always worked: full-time after my first then part-time after my second. I never really considered not working (aside from if I won the lottery obviously). I know that I don’t have the patience or organisational skills to be a stay-at-home-parent – and lashings of credit to those that do. It wasn’t until after my second child was born that I started to have pangs about missing out on spending more time with my rapidly growing kids. When we started to look at primary schools last year it suddenly struck me that the school years were really, truly, frighteningly close. No longer was I simply looking backwards at what I achingly thought I had already missed but I was suddenly conscious of what I might miss in the future.
Although I know most people manage it, the thought of having to organise pre- and after-school care for my eldest filled me with horror. I realised how important it is to me to be able to drop my daughter off (and pick her up of course – really, what kind of parent do you think I am?!) and to be there to help with reading and homework. Perhaps I am too idealistic. In reality I may end up cursing the school run, scuttling away from the gates because I can’t fit into skinny jeans or because another mother has looked at me in a funny way. Visions of sitting at the kitchen table doing sums together may turn out to be running battles over the TV remote and whether it’s okay to substitute a packet of Haribos in place of tea. Do you know what though? If I don’t try then I will never find out. Life is too short.
Continuing my current career as a freelance allows the flexibility I need as my daughter skips off into the education machine without a backward glance at me. Her brother will follow her in two years’ time but until then I am looking forward to spending more one-to-one time with him – something he hasn’t had over the last two years. He will continue to go to nursery three days a week to give me some ‘work time’. I believe strongly that nursery is a great social environment for children and that my two have benefited enormously from it. Yet I still struggle with the guilt that I should be doing that job, especially now I have opted to work from home, and wonder whether advocating nursery simply serves to make myself feel better. When I drop my son off at nursery and return home to my desk I know I will feel an overwhelming urge to go back and get him and wrap him in my arms (gorgeous little chunk that he is). It seems that parental guilt is never ending even when you’re aiming to do the best for everyone.
Now I just have to persuade my husband that it isn’t acceptable to guffaw when I say I’ve been working. But that’s another post and another strain of guilt entirely …
Sometimes I wonder if top female business executives would be better off keeping their mouths shut about the issue of women in the workplace and the challenges they face. Do they actually do more damage to the cause in trying to support it? Hell’s bells, I hate to use the word cause. It shouldn’t even be a cause. Whilst a topic remains a ‘cause’ it will never become normalised. Are high-flying business women really all that inspirational?
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, used the opportunity to talk about the gender stereotypes that are holding women back in the workplace. According to Sandberg, the more successful men get the more they are liked and the more successful women become the less they are liked. It seems that people don’t like to see women outside of their stereotypical role of wife/mother and assuming the supposedly masculine traits needed to succeed in the cut throat world of business. So unladylike!
I’m very much with Sandberg in grimacing at this unfortunate by-product of centuries of gender stereotyping. However, in the interest of openness at work (and perhaps with a misguided nod towards the ‘normalisation’ of working parents), she went on to suggest that employers should be allowed to ask their employees whether they want to have children. On this point I have to disagree with her. That’s right, one of the most personal questions you can ask someone and the answer could be scribbled down on your employment record. Perhaps the employer will also tell you openly how many doors will be shut in your face depending on the answer you give. I’m all for a climate of openness and flexibility in the working environment to help parents but I question whether Sandberg’s suggestion would genuinely benefit both parties.
Differences aside, Sandberg did use a prominent stage to champion equality for women in the workplace and for that I salute her. But here I put on my weary face. We’ve heard this a million times before from women – or, more specifically, mothers – in top jobs. These are women who have made it to the top with immense effort but – and here’s the rub – they are also women who are exceptional in some way. Exceptional can mean a whole range of things: they have voracious ambition (oops – I almost said like men), they have ninja business brains, they have made enormous sacrifices in their family life, they can afford dawn to dusk childcare, their partners have been the stay at home parent, etc, etc. The list could go on. What I am trying to say is that women who make it to the top of their career bring something extraordinary to the table that (dare I say) ‘ordinary’ women (like me) don’t or can’t. I would hazard a guess that whatever their unique quality is, it has the power to override any unfair treatment they might receive on their way up the ladder. (To be fair, the same applies to men. Not every man has, as this debate would sometimes lead us to believe, the innate ability to be a CEO just because they have different genitalia.)
Top business jobs do require an exceptionally talented candidate and when you get to such a narrow stratum of the business population is it really such a surprise that you don’t find representatives from every walk of life? Is there debate around discrimination against the unexceptional people in society? Those who are great assets to a business but cannot work until 2am in the morning? The people who say “I want to have a brilliant career and a brilliant family life in equal measure”? Perhaps we should be focussing on letting women get on with their careers and creating their own definition of success so that a woman running a multi-million pound company isn’t constantly marked out as the sole example of success in a man’s world. The women I would love to hear from are the ones who are happy, content and successful in their jobs and who have achieved a work-life balance. There are plenty of stories of women flying high because they’ve sacrificed something from their personal life or are so hard-wired to business that they started turning a profit selling tampons in the school toilets aged 11. I want to hear more from women who have achieved the Holy Grail of a perfect work-life balance – if such a thing indeed exists. That I would find inspirational.
Mums get it in the neck. Sometimes they just can’t win. Debate is raging around Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, and her assertion that she’ll only be taking a few weeks of maternity leave and plans to pretty much work through it. Naive? Yes. (A newborn is bloody hard work.) But with lots of cash to throw at the situation? Well, yes, maybe it is possible to resume your career the day the baby and mother are booted out of the private hospital followed by a gaggle of muslin-clutching nannies ready to mop up every posset. Three cheers for the woman with a successful career! Hooray for the woman who’s having a baby! But a woman trying to have a career and a baby at the same time? Boo hiss!
Marissa Mayer is an amazing example of what a woman can achieve in business. What? Even wearing heels and lipstick? Well, yes. Patronising as it may sound to mark her out as something extraordinary, that – unfortunately – is the world we live in. Women at Ms Mayer’s level are still an exception rather than a rule. It’s still odd. It is even more odd – as the debate around her comments would suggest – that a woman could choose to have a baby and choose to continue her career at the expense of the precious time that not being at work allows a mother and her child.
Yet if you’ve already made sacrifices and worked flipping hard why would you want to give up any elements of what you’ve achieved? You’re still a mother regardless. Your child still needs you and in amongst the conference calls and PDA tapping you’ll make sure you meet that need. Many women don’t get the chance to spend a long maternity leave with their child and for reasons very different to Marissa Mayer’s. She may not need to go back to work for the money but plenty of women do and need to do so quick smartish – a sad reality, like it or not, of a world driven by filthy lucre.
A woman shouldn’t have to choose a career over parenthood (or vice versa). The midwife doesn’t send you out of the hospital with a placard saying “I’m a Mother and I aspire to nothing but burping my baby”. Equally, if/when you do return to work you don’t wear a badge saying “Opting out – I’m just here for nappy money”. But in a society where women are still the primary carers for children, making sacrifices (intentionally or otherwise) is inevitable. Even when you attempt to strike a work/life balance it can, speaking from experience, feel like you’re failing at both. Should you be able to have your cake and eat it? Of course, but for most ordinary women it isn’t possible to be Superwoman – and let’s face it Marissa Mayer isn’t ‘ordinary’.
Marissa Mayer would probably love to take a year off if she knew for sure that things wouldn’t move on without her and set back her achievements. Bringing up a child alongside the pressures of her career will be another achievement that she can be proud of. To me she doesn’t sound like a woman who would do things by halves.