A few months ago, for International Women’s Day, there was a wave of women in London changing their LinkedIn profile name to Dave. This led to a group of my colleagues and I chatting about why these women had done it – that there are more men called Dave on the board of the UK FTSE top 100 companies than there are women called anything in the same position. It was interesting to me because it became an easy thing to support, a quick sound bite to throw yourself behind, to prove you were a bit feminist.
What was even more interesting to me was that nowhere in this conversation between feminists (both male and female) was what I felt was one of the core problems – many women don’t want to do these jobs. It is of course not ideal that there isn’t gender balance on the boards of these companies. It’s been shown plenty of times that boards with women in run more successful companies, as if research was ever needed to show that a balance of thinking and working styles would be a better way forward. The idea that we just need to raise awareness of the problem to encourage more boards to hire or promote more women is overly simplistic thinking.
When I voiced my this opinion of mine, people looked at me strangely. Perhaps a bit like I might have been a ghost of 50s housewife. Someone even tensely asked if I was making the mistaken assumption that all women wanted children. But I’m happy to repeat my opinion for clarity: I don’t believe women want to do these jobs. And I also believe that if they did want to do these jobs, they would be in them given that they have the intelligence, drive and motivation to hold their own on the way up the ladder.
The real issue we should be talking about is why women don’t want these jobs and why they don’t feel they want to be part of the boardroom culture especially once they become mothers.
For me, it’s not hard to understand. As an emotional person, as someone who strives for balance and as a mother, I know that this type of work would be too difficult for me. Trying to force myself into the FTSE 100, master of the universe mould, would be the equivalent of pressing self destruct and I know I felt that way even before I had the daughter I actually want to spend time with.
It occurs to me now, that it reveals so much about our society that these are the jobs that are held up as the pinnacle of success – a pretty paternalistic and materialist badge of honour.
I was raised to be good feminist teenager by a mother who worked her way through the 80s, being told that she could have it all and that she was lucky to be able to work, but who secretly (and sometimes not so secretly) wanted to be at home with us. I was raised on microwave dinners and can clearly remember how exciting it was to be picked up by either parent from school, it was so rare an occurrence. I went on to study science, to push myself to do well at maths, to take physics at university and to scorn fellow female school mates who decided to take art, english and french, subconsciously deriding them as letting the side down, as giving in to the gender stereotypes, all the while wishing I could have taken art too.
This type of behaviour went on for the next ten years: me pushing myself harder and harder to stand out, to be different, to claim my due and to make sure I never faded into the background. I wanted to be a wonder woman, to break the stereotypes – until I got closer to the top and saw what that world was really like.
After 5 or so years of working all hours under the sun, being the only woman in every meeting, being mentored by our CEO and feeling it was a compliment to be called ‘one of the boys’, something finally clicked. My work was making me tired and miserable; trying to behave like a man and live up to their standards was making me anxious. I developed a hyper competitive personality to help me cope, but the reality of always looking over my shoulder and wondering what would happen if everyone realised I wasn’t the same as the boys was not at all worth it.
Could I have been on the board of my old company? Maybe. Would the personal sacrifice needed to be on that board have been worth it?
So I used my maternity leave as a chance to step back and step away. I stayed on maternity leave for way longer than was deemed sensible. Tellingly, my job was given away to a woman who didn’t have kids, who didn’t plan to have kids and when I went through the motions of trying to negotiate a return to work on family friendly terms, my request to work only 3 days a week was turned down immediately. Why? “Because then everyone else will want to work part time too”.
When I was on this maternity leave, people asked me what I would do next. They assumed there was no way I would extend my time away from the grindstone without a secret plan brewing. Did I have a big business idea ready to unleash on the world? Had I written a book? Was I the next big #mamaboss? No, I wasn’t. I was at home, breastfeeding as long as I could, waking up through the night then catching up on my sleep and plastering on concealer, teaching my daughter to eat well, reading books a million times over and hanging out at the park, pockets full of tissues and snacks, rocking a mum bun.
So eventually, I went back to work. I did it on my terms and I still try to step back and make sure my work still matches my values as frequently as I can pause for thought. What is clear though it that I’m certainly financially worse off for wanting to spend time with my family. When I was younger and perhaps showed more direct ambition, I earnt more than I do now, nearly twice as much as I do now, and even without the adjustment for part time work, that’s a hefty drop. I sometimes look around and wonder what the younger women at our company, the ones without kids, see when they look at me. Someone who used to be more senior that now isn’t? Someone who couldn’t cut it? Maybe someone who wasn’t good enough to go all the way?
Perhaps they don’t realise that it was my choice to step away. I’m a passionate feminist and this was my choice. I made it freely. True, the very male values of my work environment compounded the decision and probably hastened it. They threw clear light on my very different personality – my unwillingness to be confrontational and competitive, my desire to be community minded, manage my teams well and supportive in every interaction.
But is lack of competition something I should be criticised for? Or not being forceful enough? Dare I say it, not male enough? Maybe many women are not at the top and don’t belong at the top, not because they’re female but because they do not want to be there, with all it entails. Perhaps it doesn’t interest them, doesn’t motivate them or make them happy.
I totally understand the thrill of the chase, the sense of belonging, the idea that if you can make it up the ladder, through the glass ceiling, you’d be a winner. But what good would that kudos, those gold stars, the piles of cash be if you’re missing out on your sleep, your contentment and your kids bedtime routine?
It’s now become really popular to define your work as your mission, to strive to find something meaningful. I guess that if work is going to be your main thing, you would have to. If I was going to spend all my time there and give everything up for it, it would need to contribute to the greater good, it would need to be purposeful.
Is this right though? Is the idea the wrong way round? Should work really be everything to us? Instead, perhaps we should be working on defining ourselves in other ways too.
Hopefully it will become ok to say that work has different meaning and purpose at different points in your life. Perhaps it could also become feminist to understand that how women work shouldn’t be our most visible way of assessing progress.
It’s fair to say that in my 20s, work was my everything. It was my social life, my ambition, my reason to be, my support through break ups, my identity – so much so that I couldn’t wait to get back from the unwelcome breaks that were holidays.
Now in my 30s, it’s become my support network, my steady income, my facilitator, my sense of balance (and also the place I can go to the toilet by myself). What will happen in my 40s?
If I have my way, it will be pretty ordinary. I’ll work at something I enjoy doing, I might work from myself. I’ll hope that people will say nice things about me and that we won’t be short of money. I’ll cook my daughter dinner every night after I’ve picked her up from school and helped her with her homework. We won’t live in a huge house or go on many Instagram worthy holidays but I’ll have enough time to fit in some mediation and yoga and not by getting up at 4.30am, just to carve out some space for myself in my super hectic days.
And you know what? Most of all I’ll hope that my daughter sees this balance and internalises it too. That she will see my freedom in choosing that type of life and won’t feel like she has to strive impossibly hard for impossibly long just to be seen as a worthy and successful part of our society. I want to teach my child that she can have a regular life and that she won’t have to be famous or special to mean anything to me or other people. Her growing up to be ordinary but fulfilled and good at something she likes is more than good enough for me.
So yes, women should be able to be on the board of the top companies of the world, if that’s what they chose. But perhaps the next feminist leap is making sure that all women receive respect for the many different kinds of work they do and are seen as successful, no matter how ordinary their choices may seem.