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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

KatnipEvergreen Tue 28-Jan-14 14:04:30

There were a core of boys who were always pratting about in science lessons, especially chemistry so it was all about crowd control rather than teaching. We had to wait outside science labs which always meant loads of moshing and fights. Also dual award science is shit anyway, as anyone who went on to do A-Level in any single science subject soon found out.

Maths teaching was patchy. I was good at maths when I had a good teacher and not when I didn't. For the last two years I had a rubbish teacher who couldn't explain anything and I barely scraped a C. After getting 97% in a test prior to starting GCSE studies.

stealthsquiggle Tue 28-Jan-14 12:23:10

(although apparently I have the answer now - I didn't give up because I was pushed, against my nature, into continuing maths and physics because I was in a single sex school. Only issue with that explanation is that out of 30 girls in my year I was the only one doing physics A level grin)

stealthsquiggle Tue 28-Jan-14 12:21:37

pickledsiblings - same here.

Trouble is, people keep asking me why girls give up STEM subjects - and I have to point out that there is not much point asking one who didn't why most others did - they need to go and ask them hmm

LauraBridges Tue 28-Jan-14 12:09:37

I have ensured all the children of both genders go do single sex (day) schools.
Boys boarding schools take girls because girls do better in exams and plenty of parents pick schools on the basis of exam grades these days.

pickledsiblings Tue 28-Jan-14 11:28:01

As usual Bonsoir's prism of self-justification contorts her own reality.

I'm a STEM graduate and postgraduate and remain utterly fascinated by such subjects. No mid-life crisis looming either despite being educated at an all girls school.

wordfactory Tue 28-Jan-14 11:23:14

Bonsoir I think you mistake the importance of MN.

It's just a place to shoot the breeze. It's completely anonymous and no one cares what anyone thinks of them. There's no winning, losing or point scoring.

We come here for entertainment and you always entertain me massively, albeit I know you don't mean to grin...

Bonsoir Tue 28-Jan-14 10:54:58

You can never ever admit to slipping up, can you, wordfactory? wink

Bonsoir Tue 28-Jan-14 10:52:13

That is exactly what I am suggesting, slipshodsybil. Not that I think for a second that there are easy answers.

wordfactory Tue 28-Jan-14 10:40:39

Oh Bonsoir you do make me PMSL grin.

Slipshodsibyl Tue 28-Jan-14 10:29:50

But Bonsoir, if it takes until mid-life for this crisis to occur, who is to say what is the cause? societal pressure maybe? If you are suggesting that single sex schools are press ganging students into subjects that don't suit them, only for biology to express itself years later, I don't agree.

Bonsoir Tue 28-Jan-14 10:21:39

Calm down, wordfactory. I wasn't suggesting that there was a single reason for mid-life crises. You need to work on your logic!

Slipshodsibyl Tue 28-Jan-14 10:17:47

Sorry, 'this seems to suggest...'

Slipshodsibyl Tue 28-Jan-14 10:17:19

'When those single-sex pupils get out I to the wiser world they revert to type'

This suggest seems to that they haven't been allowed to play to their strengths while at school but have been encouraged to study against their natural talents. I have several daughters who attend/ed mixed, and from mid teens, single sex schools. None of them or their friends were pushed into areas against their inclination - and mine have their strengths in more traditionally female subjects. They are encouraged to see themselves as very competent in all areas though and I acknowledge that stem subjects are encouraged for those who have the aptitude.

stealthsquiggle Tue 28-Jan-14 10:15:53

Actually, I think given that we are talking about a tiny sector of the education marker (independent boarding schools) there is another possible explanation. There are very, very few boys-only boarding schools left, whereas there are a relatively healthy number of girls-only ones. I think the 60/40 could be explained by the fact that more parents choose single sex boarding for their daughters than do for their sons. I am not sure the numbers add up, though.

The head I was talking to acknowledged that it used to be the case that there was more competition for girls' places than for boys', which had all sorts of impacts (because the girls were then, on average, more able than the boys) but said that he thought they had now reached the point that the 'cut off' levels for boys and girls were pretty much the same, leaving the school more balanced, and that was with a 60/40 balance. To be fair, changing the proportion takes a long time for these schools - we looked at one school which is running with a boarding house at 20% of capacity because they are "emptying" it to change it to a girls house. That's a huge sacrifice of revenue and something which takes 5 years from decision to being able to start using it as a girls house.

wordfactory Tue 28-Jan-14 10:09:58

Oh come on Bonsoir the world is bursting with co-educated mid life crisis sufferers.

The divorce courts are full of them grin.

Slipshodsibyl Tue 28-Jan-14 10:09:20

That is an interesting point. But if single sex promote social engineering against biological bent, can't mixed schools be said to exaggerate the effects of biology?

Bonsoir Tue 28-Jan-14 10:05:47

It would support the heads' position, slipshodsybil.

Bonsoir Tue 28-Jan-14 10:03:15

Because single-sex schools are a form of social engineering to promote ends that counter biology.

When those single-sex pupils get out into the wider world, they revert to type (this might take a while - mid-life crisis anyone?). As humans tend to!

Slipshodsibyl Tue 28-Jan-14 10:01:01

Quite possibly Bonsoir. But this would explain the imbalance of girls/boys at boarding to schools and suggests the heads are telling the truth about parity of applications wouldn't

wordfactory Tue 28-Jan-14 09:59:58

But if it's innate Bonsoir why do we not see the same trend in single sex schools.

In single sex schools we do see girls choosing and excelling in STEM, and boys choosing and excelling in MFL etc

Bonsoir Tue 28-Jan-14 09:56:23

I think that boys and girls do not have identical needs (on average) and that, perhaps, it is harder to cater to boys' needs at home than it is to girls' needs, particularly in restrictive urban environments.

Bonsoir Tue 28-Jan-14 09:53:26

The gender imbalance shows up in the same way in every country as soon as DC are allowed to make free choices.

It's called innate biological preference.

Slipshodsibyl Tue 28-Jan-14 09:50:10

I disagree with the reason for 60/40 boarding proportions being that girls take over. I believe heads would be happy for girls to take over if it helped their exams results along, which is part if the reason they started to take girls in the first place. I do wonder if too many girls might be seen by some to over feminize the traditions and values of the old boys' schools, though I don't see this is the case.

I think the reason is because parents are far less keen to board girls than they are boys. It is reported that parents see boarding as fostering independence and that they prize independence in sons far more than in daughters.

I know a significant number of families where the boys have boarded and the girls have attended day schools or where boys are paid for and girls not. The reasons given are several (each child is different etc etc) but even if one believes them entirely, there is still an idea that girls are different and are better cared for within the family.

I know quite a lot of people my age from various economic and educational backgrounds whose parents have explicitly and confidently expressed the idea that the education of boys is more important than that of girls. Times have changed but There is a part of me that feels that that idea is still implicit but unspoken or explained away by the notion that their needs somehow differ.

stealthsquiggle Tue 28-Jan-14 09:21:30

The fact that all DC are allowed to opt out (wrong, I agree) doesn't explain the gender imbalance in which subjects they opt out of, though.

Bonsoir Tue 28-Jan-14 09:12:42

stealthsquiggle - that trend has nothing to do with single sex or mixed education and everything to do with the fact that children are allowed to opt out of core subjects in the UK whereas most of the sane world doesn't let them!

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