Modern women may decide their place is at home with the children

Suppose that many mothers say that they'd rather not be ambassadors now that they have little Tarquin
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"RAZOR FISH slash feet of 800 holiday-makers," said one headline yesterday, following the weekend's podiatric carnage on the Devon Riviera. "It was like the scene from Jaws," said one anxious dad. A beach full of happy holiday-makers frolicked, first one scream was heard and then 10, and the water ran red, as a sudden plague of killer molluscs hit town.

But the truth was a bit different. Owing to a very low tide, the humans inhabiting the Fawlty Towers hotels and caravan sites of the south coast had walked out further than usual in search of water and trouble. In mundane fact, a sandbank full of basking razorshells, peacefully filtering crud over their feelers (or whatever they do) was set upon by a sudden plague of holidaymakers. The sharp-shelled creatures were just doing their natural thing - it was the humans who were changing the rules.

Which observation brings me, of course, to the subject of the Foreign Office and the glass ceiling. If razorshells took up yesterday's front pages, most papers also covered the efforts by Robin Cook and his colleagues to help women diplomats break through the invisible barrier that appears to prevent those with children attaining the highest office. To date, there are no women ambassadors with kids; the six women who currently hold that office are all childless. Fiction has got there before the reality, with Pauline Collins recently starring as our woman in Dublin, complete with two difficult teenagers, in BBC1's The Ambassador.

Not only is this, on the face of it, unfair, but it is also wasteful of talent. Over a third of FO staff are women, and out of 23 recent recruits to the diplomatic service's fast-stream programme, more than half were female. Yet, when many of these women have babies, they will - on current trends - find themselves returning to work in their former junior posts, while their unencumbered male counterparts have climbed several rungs. Many of the women will then drop out.

So something, Mr Cook says, must be done. Women with children must be helped to bust through the glass ceiling. Perhaps, the FO muses, they should be promoted in grade while absent on maternity leave or extended breaks, so that they can return on a par with their male - and childless female - counterparts. Imaginative job-shares of senior posts, and more flexible working hours, could also assist in keeping mothers on an upward career trajectory.

Well, it seems to me that all these things are worth trying. But what if the women don't actually want the job? Yes, you heard me right; suppose that many mothers say that they'd rather not be ambassadors and first secretaries now that they have little Tarquin and Jemima to think about.

I mean, it's not as though middle-class and professional households are full of men telling their wives that, "tha place is at home wit' bairns, woman!", and the woman begging, pleading to be allowed to go out to work. Far from it. Rather, it seems to me, I encounter families in which the mother grumbles about having to work full time, and desperately seeks ways of spending more time with her children. Often she will say, explicitly, that her priorities have changed.

Just over two years ago, an LSE sociologist, Catherine Hakim, was comprehensively jumped on by the liberal academic establishment for producing research which, she said, showed that the glass ceiling was essentially a myth. The evidence suggested that men and women had different priorities. Whereas men defined themselves mostly in terms of work, women (especially those with kids) saw themselves in a more diffuse light. Unable or unwilling to compartmentalise their lives in the way that men did, many women saw part-time work as the ideal way of combining roles. Often that ambition, to badger their way to the very top, had been replaced by a more complex series of motivations.

Hakim was vilified. Not surprisingly. Now every male chauvinist at the top of every corporation had - her critics felt - been given a gilt-edged excuse for discriminating against women employees. And anyway, they argued, what was cause and what was effect? Was it not likely that many women felt this way precisely because fathers offered so little help in the home, employers offered so little support at work, and the state offered so little assistance with looking after children in between? Rectify those problems and the glass ceiling would be shattered, and liberated motherhood would storm the keep.

Yes, well. Just now it is becoming increasingly possible to wonder out loud about the premiss upon which all this rests, which is that - to all intents and purposes (save one) - the genders can be made to be interchangeable. The study of evolution, breakthroughs in genetics, speculations about how human beings developed, the wonderfully complex debate about the interaction between the essential human, biology and society, has made us all less certain about what is innate and what ain't.

Are men naturally polygamous, by reason of physiognomy and hunter gathering? Or naturally monogamous, as a consequence of the need to protect offspring for many years? What are we to make, for instance, of the study that showed women "preferring" the sweaty T-shirts of men whose pheromones indicated a complementary series of immunities to their own? In the end we have theories, and that is all.

But this permission to think a bit more laterally about men, women and children is, for many, quite liberating. All of a sudden, lots of mothers can admit to themselves that - very often - they seem to have a deep need, not explained simply by force of circumstance, prejudice or lack of alternative, to be there when their children are small, and shape their lives accordingly. Indeed, given the billion years of human evolution, it would be extraordinary if this were not often the case. Little girls don't play with dolls just because the patriarchy tells them to.

But, unlike most animals, human beings are not shackled by their biology. We fly, for instance. And just because we have been doing something for millions of years, that doesn't mean that we all have to continue doing it in the same way. Most of us know of couples where the bloke mainly looks after the children, and the woman is the high-flyer. Though rare, such arrangements seem to be as successful as the more conventional ones.

But they are rare partially because it isn't what most men, and most women, want to do. And many mothers are going to fall well short of the new ideal of "having it all" through combining caring motherhood with the business of doing what it takes to get to the top of large and demanding organisations. They don't have the energy. I look at progressive organisations, such as the BBC, which offer jobshares and career breaks to help high- flying women, and I see those same women saying to themselves, guiltily: "Is this what I really want?"

It isn't obvious that the answer is always "yes". And we should be careful how we apply the pressure. If the glass ceiling is smashed, it oughtn't to be by shoving reluctant mothers through it. After all, those razorshells have been on that sand bank for a very long time; we shouldn't expect them to change their habits overnight, just because the tide's gone out.