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KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 24-Jan-14 16:12:43

Why is society so unsupportive of high-achieving 'power mums'?

A recent survey found that 57% of us think that 'when it comes to the work-life balance women can't have it all, however much they may want it'.

So where does that leave mothers with high-level careers? In this guest post, Christine Armstrong asks why society is so ambivalent about 'power mums'.

Read the post and tell us what you think. Could society be more supportive of women who want motherhood and leadership roles at work?

Lead photo
Christine Armstrong

Founding Member, Jericho Chambers

Posted on

Fri 24-Jan-14 16:12:43

(393 comments)

Power mums - "surviving, not thriving"?

Nigel Farage has hurled himself into the debate about equality at work with a typically thoughtful, modern and nuanced view: City women with families are "worth less" than their male counterparts. UKIP-madness-as-usual, you think.  Until you look at polling data which reveals what society really thinks about women in senior roles - and are forced to wonder whether his comments are smarter than they first look.
 
At a Jericho Chambers debate last week, chaired by Zoe Williams of the Guardian, the research company Populus shared a resoundingly miserable take on public views of women in top-level jobs.
 
Of the 2,000 people they asked, very nearly half think that our society has suffered as more women have worked out of the home. A whopping 57% agreed that 'when it comes to the work-life balance, women can't have it all, however much they may want it'.
 
So while many of us blithely assume that everyone sane wants broadly equal numbers of women and men at senior levels of business and government, we may not be right - especially if the women in question happen to have children.
 
A year ago, fed up with a corporate world of retro alpha men, I set out to interview some ‘power mums’ and ‘power dads’ about the choices they've made to get their senior jobs, for Management Today. I was looking for potential role models - but it wasn't that straightforward.  Yes, the mums do generally love their jobs. But they also work long hours, miss their kids, feel quite stressed a lot of the time, feel judged at the school gate and judged at work - and most concede that they are surviving rather than thriving.
 
In contrast, the dads feel no social censure, express few regrets and are free from the racing mental ticker-tape of things they must remember (‘online shop, wash PE kit, plan birthday party, book haircuts, cancel swimming….’) which even the women with the most help keep on a loop. Unlike one of the dads, none of the mums has yet confessed to inventing breakfast meetings to escape the chaos of Cheerio throwing.
 
The response to the publication of those interviews has, if anything, been even more striking - particularly the judgement cast upon the female high-fliers by other women. On Facebook, a woman commented on a power mum with four children and a long commute: "She may be powerful but she is no mother"; an ambitious 20-something friend said: "when I read that they only see their kids two nights a week, I think 'shame on you' - and then I hate myself for thinking it".

We can spend all the time we like dissecting equality and discrimination, childcare options and our hours culture - but until society puts quality of life and families on a more equal footing with business needs, this is just how it is.

In our frank debate last week, the self-confessed 'enlightened' CEO of Costcutter Supermarkets Group, Darcy Wilson-Rymer, was brutal on the business realities of the subject. Four-day weeks don't work - because women end up doing five days for 20% less pay, and then getting frustrated and doing something else. Job shares can work, but are not ideal at the most senior levels. 
 
After the debate, a woman who read about it sent us an infuriated email, arguing that we were missing the point: "it's actually NOT about the Power Mums who have made it in their careers by getting up at 5am, working out, working a 10-hour day, getting back late feeling guilty and employing loads of staff to help them through. Its about the average professional woman who can work maybe 20 to 30 hours a week but who doesn't want power or even career progression”.
 
Which is of course brilliant for everyone it suits.  But - news flash for Mr Farage - some women do want equality and power and progression. Even some who have had a baby, or two or three. And if the men work 70 hours a week and the women half that, it won't happen. Find me a FTSE-100 CEO who works 30 hours, and surely we'll find an exquisitely wrapped carriage clock ticking under their PA's desk.
 
We can spend all the time we like dissecting equality and discrimination, childcare options and our hours culture - but until society puts quality of life and families on a more equal footing with business needs, this is just how it is. 
 
So until that time - unless we agree with Nigel Farage and his mates - we need to be supportive of the women who are making the sacrifices to get to the top, and ensure that those women are heard. If they are not, what hope do we have that our daughters will face less stark choices?

By Christine Armstrong

Twitter: @HannisArmstrong

Paintyfingers Fri 24-Jan-14 20:06:01

Ithaka, I'm not a man. I work in a very male-dominated industry and have heard a lot of comments about mothers working long hours from both men and women. Of course the people I speak to are not universally representative. You also need to bear in mind that most of the women commented on have extremely high flying spouses who work full time and very long hours. So people know young dc will rarely see either parent during the week. It is not just woman who find this problematic.

My point if view is that it shouldn't be about mothers, it should be about parents. Individuals of either gender shouldn't be criticised for wanting stellar careers. But we should try to reduce the pressure on parents which is inimical to family life. And less sexism would be a great start.

SoftSheen Fri 24-Jan-14 20:08:00

I have known several 'high-flying' women with children, and without exception, they have all been married to 'high-flying' men.

The woman in this category who I knew best went back to work after 3 weeks maternity leave, leaving her twins (and elder child) in the care of two nannies and an au pair. She works long hours and frequently travelled/travels abroad both during the week and at weekends, as does her DH. Unfortunately at least two of the three children do seem to have suffered from this arrangement (emotional problems).

I absolutely agree that women and men should take equal responsibility for their children, and that neither's career should automatically take priority. However, if neither parent is able to spend much time with their children, then it is not surprising if their welfare does suffer.

SoftSheen Fri 24-Jan-14 20:08:56

X-post with Paintyfingers

annieorangutan Fri 24-Jan-14 20:09:19

I admire working women who have achieved something as any mum can stay at home, but not everyone can achieve in work.

TheCrackFox Fri 24-Jan-14 20:28:51

I think society is generally unsupportive of all mums.

ShreddedHoops Fri 24-Jan-14 20:30:39

Lots of interesting replies.

But please sort out your formatting HQ - the OP is illegible if you're on the app.

Bonsoir Fri 24-Jan-14 20:31:57

I know plenty of power mums (really awful expression but very evocative) and plenty of FT working mothers and they aren't one and the same.

The power mums have no time for (female) friends and they have several helpers in orbit around them to whom life is largely outsourced. You must really like your job to live like that.

scottishmummy Fri 24-Jan-14 20:33:42

Lets lose the term power mums,it's dreadfully.too kickin ass,breaking glass ceilings
There was a recent mn supportive thread mums mainly ft working,support and chat
I simply don't afford farage any time,he's not credible.hes a rabble rouser for the indignant and habitually offended

ProfondoRosso Fri 24-Jan-14 20:38:59

Completely agree with meringue - I have zero desire to work a 70+ hour week. I would never want to work somewhere that was the norm, because it's not normal. No time for recharging, recuperating, looking after yourself does not do anything for my productivity.

I have no problem with being positive about "power mums". For me they fall into the same category as SAHMs (who SAH through choice). I'm pleased that they are able to do what they want and that women have choices available to them, but I certainly don't want their lifestyle myself. I am probably one of the majority of professionals who are mothers who feel that way about "power mums".

The role model of "power mums" doesn't do much to promote equal gender representations at high levels, because most women don't want that lifestyle and will therefore "opt out" in some way before reaching those levels. I therefore don't see how they will improve the choices available to my daughter.

If we really do want to attain greater gender balance then I think that the comments about Scandi lifestyles and human friendly workplaces are spot on.

4paws Fri 24-Jan-14 20:40:40

Society wants people who throw themselves into working long hours, presenteeism, can jump on a plane at a moment's notice.

Society also wants people to nurture their children, staying at home with them for the first few years and generally being around throughout childhood, for the school play, the trips, the homework, the additional clubs, sickness, vomiting etc.

It is basically 2 opposing camps.

yes some people do manage to do well at both. Somehow. And I can't help thinking a lot of luck is involved (how often child/ren is/are sick etc) and an awful lot of planning.

But really, most people can't. It isn't possible. With (delete as appropriate) their spouse/relatives/career/boss/child/living arrangements etc)

annieorangutan Fri 24-Jan-14 20:45:38

Really 4paws? I would of said modern society is conpletely geared around both parents working.

Bonsoir Fri 24-Jan-14 20:47:00

I do sometimes find with power mums that they are so used to life revolving around them (so many helpers) that they think that miscellaneous people they meet in situations where they ought to treat them as equals (such as other parents at school) are also available to revolve around them. They can appear quite selfish by normal standards.

<dons hard hat>

4paws Fri 24-Jan-14 20:50:02

annie I don't think business is geared towards parents working. I think children are a nuisance as far as business productivity is perceived.

People without children aren't going to be looking as much for 'help' be it flexible hours, time off because dependents are sick, maternity/paternity leave etc.

Bonsoir Fri 24-Jan-14 20:52:11

I suppose what I mean is that some power mums do seem to expect an awful lot of support from the wider world while not giving much back. And that creates a bit of resentment.

4paws Fri 24-Jan-14 20:52:23

So yes, govt might make noises about parents/children being valued etc, but for business right here, right now. No.

scottishmummy Fri 24-Jan-14 20:52:29

I'm not compelled to work,I want to.im not under any enforced employment yoke
I love the job I do

annieorangutan Fri 24-Jan-14 20:56:31

4paws - We manage it easily as I just share everything with dh.

4paws Fri 24-Jan-14 20:57:05

scottishmummy that's great. Most people want to work. Would be bored stiff if they couldn't. But most are under an 'employment yoke' to some extent

Bonsoir Fri 24-Jan-14 20:57:52

Forgive me, scottishmummy, but I don't think that you are a power mum with a nanny, housekeeper, au pair and a zillion airmiles. Are you?

4paws Fri 24-Jan-14 20:57:54

great for you annie. Are you one of these high flying 'power mums' re the OP?

Paintyfingers Fri 24-Jan-14 20:59:32

According to a recent survey which asked I think 4,000 mothers about their employment preferences (as opposed to their actual hours), only 18% said they wanted to work full time.

justdrankacappuccino Fri 24-Jan-14 20:59:45

I don't think I've worked for any business that is geared to family life because most of them are run by men with a stay at home wife running the show.

So much for progress...

Paintyfingers Fri 24-Jan-14 20:59:46

Will try to find and link.

annieorangutan Fri 24-Jan-14 20:59:55

No but I have done up to 50 hours regularly andits no big deal. Im sure if your as rich as a power mum type it would be even easier as you get cleaners and help.

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