I have the same reaction to International Women’s Day (IWD) as I did when first asked to be a founder member of the Women’s Utilities Network (WUN)- I squirm.
The reason I squirm is that throughout my (modestly) successful career, I have never felt held back by being a woman. I’m not one for burning my bra or beating the feminist drum. I can count the number of times I’ve experienced overt sexism at work on one hand and I've been to some truly cringeworthy women only networking events. I hate with a passion, the idea of quotas and of being appointed into a role because I’m a woman. At the same time, I am under no doubt that the need for diversity from the Boardroom down is now unquestioned by the vast majority of people and there is a genuine intent in business to improve the balance.
So given the squirming, why am I still actively supporting initiatives such as IWD and the WUN?
What convinces me to take a step forward, is that you can’t get away from the statistics which are still woeful, and not getting better very fast. I have a particular beef too, when looking at ‘better’ Board statistics today, that if you take away women in specialist support roles (legal, finance, HR, marketing), you are left with incredibly few women in roles such as business head, commercial lead or managing director. One key issue for me is that women who make it into Boardrooms, albeit highly talented and expert in their area, are still largely cast in support roles. I’m conscious that I am, in a small way, one of the very few women that has been lucky enough to hold the title ‘managing director’ and therefore feel an obligation to help other women get into primary leadership roles, supported by men and women equally.
My personal belief is that the root of the issue does not lie at work- it lies at home and within the prevailing society model that still dominates. The frame of reference embedded in our society is still that the man is the primary breadwinner and the woman is the primary home maker/child carer. The difference now though, is that the woman also wants/needs to forge their own career which is incredibly hard to achieve when maintaining all the primary responsibilities at home. The majority of women that I talk to in their careers are still also taking responsibility for almost all the homemaking, and I talk to far too many men who are lovely people and support diversity at work, but still say ‘I don’t want my wife to work’. Until we make changes with the traditional home mindset, I don’t believe that the fundamental shift in balance at work will be able to happen. And this shift needs to be equally owned by men and women.
I know that my career could not have developed as it has if it was not for my husband’s support. When my salary first overtook his, he had a testosterone fuelled crisis where he planned to throw in teaching and retrain in a role which had higher earning potential. It took all my powers of persuasion to convince him that he is one of those teachers that we all wish we’d had more of, and his talents would be wasted in another role. He’s still in touch with grateful pupils from throughout his career of 30 years, something which is far more valuable than money.
Having moved past this, we adopted a hybrid model of work, homemaking and child rearing. My husband took on the role of pick ups, holidays, supper and homework help, which allowed me to relax when needing to be at work. As soon as I walk into the house, we revert to type, with me as chief homemaker, nurturing mother and social life organiser (and usually stressing about the fact that the house is not as clean and tidy as I’d like). We both share almost all of the household chores, but just to give reassurance to the Alphas, my husband is no more likely to pick up an iron or a duster than I am to pick up a power tool or learn to use the lawn mower. This balance is why I’ve been able to develop my career as I have. We both have successful careers, but through a conscious and joint decision, mine has been the one that’s taken priority in terms of time commitment and mobility.
My husband’s career has taken the back seat, but we are better as a family for it. With our two daughters now pretty much grown up, we are all very close and the girls have spent equal time with us both. The fact that the girls are happy, confident and successful gives me assurance that the fact that their mother has not been physically there all the time has done no damage to them and does not make me a bad mother- another ingrained worry set that holds back many women from pursuing their careers. In fact, I know that I’m a better mother for having done what I’ve done. I was totally blown away this week, when laughing with my eldest (21) about the fact that I’d been billed an ‘inspirational woman’ when presenting at an IWD event (I don’t take myself very seriously) when she suddenly went deadly serious and said, ‘but you are my inspiration’.
I am aware of very few women who have made it to the top, who are not massively supported by their other half- and this support is reflected in their partner’s career choices, priorities, and stepping up to support at home and with childcare. So, if nothing else on International Women’s Day, I’d ask men and women, married or in partnerships, to reflect on their own circumstances and truly question whether the balance at home is right to allow both partners to be equally fulfilled and succeed in chosen careers. The answer in many cases will require change at home to allow careers at work to flourish. Without making change at home, I don’t believe the Boardroom balance will ever really get better.