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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?

Christine Armstrong

Founding Member, Jericho Chambers

Posted on: Fri 24-Jan-14 16:12:43


Lead photo

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.

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 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".

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

rookiemater Sat 25-Jan-14 10:42:33

This kind of reminds me of the threads that crop up occasionally where SAHMs ask why society doesn't recognize their value.

On both sides, SAHM or high earning WOHM, I'm not sure what they are looking for - a medal?

My personal belief is that I am perfectly supportive if either parent has a long hours job, but for DCs I feel it is better if one parent is not working uber long hours - doesn't matter if it is the father or the mother.

I'm not sure what this sacrifice is that the blogger talks about. It sounds like she loves her job and the big bucks it brings her - if anyone is making the sacrifice it is potentially the children. Why is it my job to be supportive of that? I'm one of those grunt mums who chose to sacrifice my career by working p/t - I don't expect anyone to applaud me for that, it's my decision and what we chose because we felt it was the right option for our family.

scottishmummy Sat 25-Jan-14 10:47:03

I'm not constantly switched on for the kids when I work.i compartmentalise
I think there needs to be a equitable sharing of tasks between both parents
It's bit of a stereotype that as mum one is constantly mentally juggling.fretting - it's not like that for me

annieorangutan Sat 25-Jan-14 10:50:28

I think like sm I have a partner that does as much if not more than me. I can honestly saying Im never thinking of what I have to do at home when Im at work. I dont even think about it much at home tbh as there is not that much to think of. Im looking after 2 kids when Im at home, not running the country.

edamsavestheday Sat 25-Jan-14 11:42:14

Not sure I like the term 'power mums'. I work full-time in a responsible professional job but I'd scoff at the idea of being a 'power mum'.

However, I do think the OP has a massive point in that women are always criticised, and women who work f-t get a really bad press (as do SAHMs sometimes). And the world of business can often be hostile to women with children, assuming they are 'less serious' about their career, while merrily employing fathers with no questions.

Companies are unhelpful or even negative about work-life balance, completely ignoring all the research that proves people who are knackered and unable to switch off are less productive and creative. All this bollocks about long hours and high stress being necessary is just bollocks. Having employees who have a life outside work is A Good Thing. Having employees who barely have time to go home and get a shower is not good for productivity or creativity or anything.

ProfondoRosso Sat 25-Jan-14 11:51:07

Feral strangers with NVQs, SM? hmm

scottishmummy Sat 25-Jan-14 11:56:26

As in,Left with strangers.nursery/nanny is a feral stranger with NVQ and runny nose
Because of course a better mother well she wouldn't leave her pwecious baby with strangers
And of course,someone knows someone who worked in nursery and they were a reprobate

gotthemoononastick Sat 25-Jan-14 12:50:39

There are many different kinds of Mothers.You can not go what is against your nature.

The Elephants,long,hard gestation and years of looking after offspring.They never forget.This can be good or bad.

The live birth givers on land and sea...some look after offspring for a period of time and let go.

The egg layers,some there for a day or a year or never.

The incapables,for whatever reason, who eat their offspring.

None are 'better' than the others

None of the above have a just is.

amothersplaceisinthewrong Sat 25-Jan-14 13:52:46

My own old fashioned view is that it is probably not good for children to have a power dad and a power mum each pursuing their power career at the same time.....

There are some very high powered jobs that need loads of hours, travel at short notice etc etc. People doing those jobs with children (men or women) need a partner to take responsibility for the home life. We therefore need men to take on the vital and just as important support role at home if we want more women at the top table of business.

ppeatfruit Sat 25-Jan-14 15:01:17

S'funny I've not noticed a marked improvements in the home\work balance in businesses who have full time parents working in them. There is as much difference between women 'high fliers' as there is between men 'high fliers' as this thread demonstrates.

A lot of very powerful women pull the ladder up behind them (Margaret Thatcher was a good example). They judge people purely on their results not their sex.

meringuesnowflakes33 Sat 25-Jan-14 15:30:39

Trying to figure out why the term 'power mum' jars so much.

Is it because the equivalent 'power dad' would be absurd? (As someone pointed out up thread, powerful men usually have children too, but no one mentions this/ cares. Men are not defined by their reproductive status).

Is it because 'power' and women are so rarely linked? So 'power mum' is qualifying the power you have - you may be a CEO but don't forget you're still responsible for the muddy football laundry?

Either way, I hate the term.

Want2bSupermum Sat 25-Jan-14 15:41:54

I don't like the term 'power mother' either. Its not about power its about making choices that are best for my family.

With both DH and I are working FT, I have spoken on MN before about how my family set up is probably unusual to some. I am very lucky I have the funds available through DH's career to enable me to work long hours. It shouldn't be this way and I think its sad UKIP didn't say how they would be changing the system to enable change in our society. IMO childcare should be fully deductible from gross income if both parents are working.

I don't disagree with UKIP's statement about working mothers. I rarely see reduced hours/compressed weeks help a woman and I never see men taking these options. In the city it is all about your relationships and if you are working 4 days a week or less you are not meeting your clients needs. Your value is based on your relationships with clients so you are worth less if you work less.

Other women will always judge. My sister judges me and I pity her that feels the need to judge me. If she was secure in her parenting she wouldn't feel the need to judge me. I don't make it home during the week for bedtime. I do have breakfast with the kids every morning, we read books and sing songs. Why do you have to do it in the evening? I am secure enough in my parenting that I know I am doing what is best for my family.

Dixy30 Sat 25-Jan-14 16:11:57

I think society/ other peoples responses depends on the conditions of the job/ person.

I earn in the £80/100k bracket and husband earns the same. We both work 9-5 day in day out and don't travel. We state this when head hinted/changing jobs. Kids are dared for my grandparents who are well paid and love the job.

Nobody has ever ever said anything detrimental to my face/knowledge about either of us. You cut your cloth.

IceNoSlice Sat 25-Jan-14 16:13:32

Interesting blog and thread.

I agree that, in general, women are more judgmental of other women than men are. About child care choices, working etc. But also about a lot of other things - clothes, weight etc. I think some of it stems from feeling judged themselves - so they then judge others.

A lot of men just don't seem to care as much about what others think of them - or waste time judging each other.

This does not help. As a WOHM I try not to get involved in all that - I get my work done at work, I spend time with DC when at home.

Posters are right about how important it is to share home responsibilities and child care with DHs. Men should have equal responsibility and until women stop being a martyr/ doormat and letting men shirk in the h

IceNoSlice Sat 25-Jan-14 16:15:14

...letting men shirk in the home then that won't change.

PacificDogwood Sat 25-Jan-14 16:23:25

Oh, this makes my blood boil!

This is not about our individual choices or our individual circumstances. What I or any of you do is irrelevant - this is v much a societal issue.
And it's so NOT a 'women's issue' - well, it is, but is shouldn't be.

Nobody harps on about high-flying men making sacrifices although of course they do. They don't 'have it all' - how on earth could anyone 'have it all'?? It's such a fallacy that there is such a thing as 'having it all'.

It IS a massive issue that women are less likely to make the choices that will take them to the top. They will be more judged if they do. They will have to work harder/be better in order to get there - and still might not angry. 'High-flying' women are more likely to do more housework/supervise homework/know when the school play is/sort out emergency childcare when there is a problem etc etc than 'high-flying' men.

As long as society values men more than women and working lots and lots for as much money as possibly more than a satisfying and healthy work/life balance, nothing much is going to change. Tinkering with childcare is not the answer (although of course welcome) - a whole sea-change in attitude is required and I cannot see this happen in my life time tbh.

BIWI Sat 25-Jan-14 16:29:25

Surely if you were a 'power mum' this would be a description of your role within the home and family and would have nothing to do with your career? hmm

What a bloody awful phrase.

spectacular Sat 25-Jan-14 16:51:15

I am one of these types of women working at the very top level of a male dominated business. My observation is that things still have a very long way to go before women and men have equal choices to pursue a successful career and enjoy a happy and balanced family life.
I am about to leave and what brought me to that point was that women are still expected to operate in a male dominated culture and all that has been achieved over the past 20-30 years is that women have been 'mentored' as to how to do so. In fact in my organisation it is interesting that the majority of the women who have reached the top have done so with SAHPs, so if anything it is a question of role reversal rather than having a dual career couple both managing to make it work.
My own organisation spends so much time and effort telling women how to be effective and in effect, to be more like men. Mentors hand out all the various cheats, leave your jacket on the back of your chair when you leave for the evening, so that it looks like you are still in a meeting, make sure you are seen burning the midnight oil for one long night a week, send a few high profile emails over the weekend to show you are working, make sure you get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of the networking events you attend etc etc.
No one seems to stop and ask the question 'is the way we work, the best way possible to allow both sexes opportunity for a good work, life balance?' Why not? Why is there some kind of holy grail around being chained to a desk? Why is presenteeism still such an issue, in the world of ever evolving technology? I think the answer is trust. No one trusts each other to work hard and to put the interests of the business ahead of other pressures. That's why hierarchal organisations are still prevalent, when they are really totally outdated. If we became better at finding ways of measuring outputs (and I am sure technological advances should make that possible) then maybe the hang-ups about not being valued unless you can be seen by others 24/7 might disappear.
I am quite depressed by it all, quite frankly. It is so easy to be drawn in to the 'this is the way we do things' culture of an organisation and even once you realise it, your ability to change it is next to nil. So I am walking away from it all, my head is just far too bruised from all the banging against walls it has been doing!

PacificDogwood Sat 25-Jan-14 16:52:31

spectacular, it is depressing, but you are so right.

Want2bSupermum Sat 25-Jan-14 17:27:21

spectacular I hear you. I am working from home today. I am MN while on a conference call. DH is away on business and the kids are being looked after downstairs by our childminder. This is the only break I will get this weekend. Trust is a huge problem. In my teams I make sure that performance is based on meeting deadlines and quality of work. I don't care how you get there but you need to get there and the work has to be of a good standard.

IceNoSlice Sat 25-Jan-14 18:13:40

spectacular thank you - interesting post. And striking a lot of chords with me about my workplace. Although I'm not at the top (yet?) - several more rungs to go. I will look at mentoring in a different way now.

stealthsquiggle Sat 25-Jan-14 18:38:15

Having been working with Scandinavian teams lately, but still bases from the UK, I have observed some subtle but important differences.

One example is that "I can't do that time because I have to pick my child up" is an entirely valid reason for moving a call, either internal or with a customer, from either men or women. In the UK I would just say "sorry, I can't do that time" but would never admit that it was childcare related.

spectacular Sat 25-Jan-14 18:42:52

I really do feel quite stupid for being so easily hoodwinked.

I was so excited to be invited to the damned table that I didn't stop and think whether I was in the company of people that I wanted to dine with.
And of course, once you spot the game that is being played, it is impossible to 'unsee' it.

I would like to say it was fun while it lasted but ...

slugseatlettuce Sat 25-Jan-14 18:48:04

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

RowanMumsnet (MNHQ) Sat 25-Jan-14 18:52:28


Lots of interesting replies.

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

Sorry about this - we'll get Tech on the case.

PacificDogwood Sat 25-Jan-14 19:10:35

YY re the 'honour' of being invited and the company one is then forced to keep.

I kind of 'chose' to not gun for the top because I always knew I'd want children and I'd want to be at home for some of their childhood. Now I wonder how much of a true 'choice' I ever had and am angry about thinking (at the time) that this was a free choice.
And I work in an environment that recently has quite heavily changed to become more equal in its gender distribution (in fact women now number more at university, but are still hugely underrepresented in senior/management positions).

stealth, v interesting what you say about Scandinavian teams.

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