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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

SirChenjin Fri 24-Jan-14 16:59:39

Why do these women who are making 'sacrifices' to get to the top need the rest of us to be supportive of them? I can think of many, many other things that I would rather give my support to - and quite frankly, I'm encouraging my daughter to be happy in her own skin as opposed to anything else. I hardly see that as a less stark choice.

ProfondoRosso Fri 24-Jan-14 17:10:53

Society is 'unsupportive' of high-achieving mothers because it's unsupportive of 'underachieving' mothers. It continues to make women's choices difficult because it still isn't enlightened enough to understand that women have complex lives. So plenty of politicians and media outlets do their best to pit women against each other. But the majority of us aren't biting. Many of us want things that others don't, and vice versa.

I know mothers who work crazy hours, mothers who don't work outside the home, mothers who work from home. They don't need my judgement and I wouldn't offer any anyway.

I don't have children, but I want to have them sooner rather than later. This may well dent my career prospects, but I don't evaluate myself in terms of hours worked or promotions earned, and equally I don't evaluate anyone I know in terms of how many children they have, or how much time they spend with them.

Whatever someone else wants to do is their choice. I don't want to see sexism or inequality and will stand up for women's rights not to be constrained or judged on the basis of gender. But these things happen however you choose to live your life, sadly.

Paintyfingers Fri 24-Jan-14 17:25:33

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Ilovelists Fri 24-Jan-14 17:37:07

I agree with Painty, surely it's about encouraging dads to be showing the same family oriented priorities at their workplaces, rather than championing the cause of the "power mums" as they compete in an environment that does not often leave much room for work-home-life balance. Of course those women need support in the choices they've made, we all do, but I would much rather question the dads who are increasingly absent from home life than encourage mums to do the same. Wouldn't that do more to redress the gender inequality for the future?

jonicomelately Fri 24-Jan-14 18:00:12

Wtf is a 'power mum?' It sounds like an Americanism to me. Who cares about being judged by Nigel Farage or 'school gate' mums?

SirChenjin Fri 24-Jan-14 18:04:15

Or indeed, being judged by anyone for our career choices and the level to which we choose to rise to (unless, of course, you're doing something illegal or immoral - or both. In which case, judge away!)

ChoudeBruxelles Fri 24-Jan-14 18:28:59

It's difficult to read all of that on a phone asthe text has gone all wonky

maxpower Fri 24-Jan-14 18:35:45

. Dh and I both work full time me m-f dh shifts. As a consequence we really do have a partnership sharing child care and the running of the house. However Quite a lot of my female friends are sahp and there's a very clear division of responsibility between them and their partners. Even at weekends the dad doesn't share the parenting or running the house. Giving parents the ability to share maternity leave would be a start so women aren't discriminated against in the job market; likewise we need men to champion their parental rights in the workplace to stop parenting been seen as a female responsibility.

scottishmummy Fri 24-Jan-14 18:40:58

I don't associate with term power mum Too sloganising.i work ft.thats it
I don't seek anyone else support or approbation,nice if it's spontaneously offered.not holding my breath for it either.

No parent has it all.have it all us biggest myth we ever got sold
You work,you're not always available,not there fir every school gate or party.fact
You don't work,your out the employment loop, and usually dependent upon waged adult.fact

I don't actually care whether or not my employment status causes consternation fir anyone suits us
I love working I've worked hard for career,I didn't want to give that up

Re:jip from other women?god yes,no man ever asked me why do you work,or has pulled the hmmface.all the snippy comments came from other women,the precious moments crew

On mn I habitually read explanation why female gave up work,reduced hours,leaving male unencumbered and able to attend to career. It's a bit sad that babies and childcare is still seen as female domain

I'm happy to work ft -I think it's good fir my children to see mum work, as opposed to being housewife and dad work.i didn't want to enact a patriarchal set up

scottishmummy Fri 24-Jan-14 18:54:15

Also it depends kind of partner you hook up with,if they're equitable on task and spirit
I compartmentalise when I'm at work no I'm not thinking of kids,laundry,to do
We share tasks,have planner and workout daily who responds if we get the call from school/ nursery.whomever has most on that day due ant respond it's not automatically my responsibility cause I'm mum

We as women need to make sure we don't slip into the default,everything child related=mum

justdrankacappuccino Fri 24-Jan-14 18:55:14

There are so few women because it is nigh on impossible for them to compete.

I'm an Executive Assistant and my boss' calendar changes minute by minute. Unless you have a house husband/Mary Poppins figure on hand 24/7 how on earth can you be expected to jump on a plane/travel to the other end of the country/sit on a conf call at 1am with a couple of hours notice. Because that is what is happening day in day out at board level every day.

The only way it will change is if women start businesses and design jobs around women's needs not the other way around.

scottishmummy Fri 24-Jan-14 18:55:40


Pollycazalet Fri 24-Jan-14 19:05:22

Agree, broadly with Pointyfingers.

I have a huge admiration for women who combine raising their children who get to the top in their professions. Thank goodness for them showing our daughters that women can be at the top table. And frankly, until we have many more women in senior roles, the long hours culture of our working lives will not change.

Paintyfingers Fri 24-Jan-14 19:08:36

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

meringuesnowflakes33 Fri 24-Jan-14 19:21:28

I've said this before but I think anyone who works 70+ hour weeks is nuts.

Male or female. Parent or not.

meringuesnowflakes33 Fri 24-Jan-14 19:26:45

I mean, that's not even a debate about family friendly workplaces. It's about human being friendly workplaces. That kind of lifestyle takes a tremendous toll on your physical and mental health.

I think there's something a bit wrong with a society where some people think that working like that is a privilege and what success looks like.

scottishmummy Fri 24-Jan-14 19:33:18

When need is there I've done a 70hr+ Week,not the norm but if it was deadline I'd do it

scottishmummy Fri 24-Jan-14 19:43:23

Painty,if you're on a thread about working mums,to complain bout precious moments crew
You're barking up wrong tree,as you see the op had given a recognition to the sniping from other women
Am I insecure not at all.but damn right is I will rebuke the precious moments crew

ithaka Fri 24-Jan-14 19:47:31

The men think it too, Scottish. They just don't say it.

Was there any need for that? What gives you the knowledge to pronounce on what all men are thinking? You have just reinforced that some women feel the need to put down other women they think are too successful.

I do think women can be their own worst enemies. It always just 'makes sense' for the woman to give up work, because she earns less. And why does she earn less? Because she has been supporting her DH's career at the expense of her own - so convenient for him, such a cul-de-sac for her.

I am not sure of the solution. To be honest, children or not, I doubt I would have been a high flyer. But too many men have got further than they deserve on the back of women's self sacrifice and that isn't right.

MadameLeBean Fri 24-Jan-14 19:48:33

The thing that is annoying about Nigel Farage's comments (lol just autocorrected to girl garage!) is not that he is wrong - anyone who takes a year or two out of the workplace is at a disadvantage and "worth less to their employer" than someone who stayed in - but that he assumes (1) that the taking of parental leave and raising of kids is exclusively female responsibility and (2) that all women need or want to take 1yr+ off work. It makes me so mad that everyone the media ignore the fact staring everyone in the face that if child rearing responsibility was shared equally between parents then almost all workers would have those things to balance - it would be NORMAL not to be able to jump on a plane with 1hr notice - but it will never be normal until MEN are subject to those constraints sometimes too. That is why I will not have a child with my DP unless he makes equal career sacrifices (eg same amount of time off, request flexi etc)

Paintyfingers Fri 24-Jan-14 19:56:45

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

annieorangutan Fri 24-Jan-14 20:00:10

I work full time and whenever I with my kids Im loving it, and dont feel any guilt. God sake I dont want to be tied to them 24/7. I prefer working to staying at home.

ItStillLooksLikeRainDear Fri 24-Jan-14 20:00:15

Because people like Katie Hopkins are thrown in our faces by the media. vile woman

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

Pointyfingers the men in my life admire hard working women - don't assume you speak for all men.

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