O Superwoman

Nicola Horlick is a working mother of five who happens to earn pounds 1m a year. That does not make her superhuman.
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The Independent Online
Yesterday's headline writers were unanimous in their treatment of Nicola Horlick, the high-flying pension fund manager suspended by her employer, Deutsche Morgan Grenfell. This was not a hiccup for any old working woman, this was a tumble to earth for "Superwoman".

Two important facts single Nicola Horlick out for the epithet. First, she manages to cram into her meagre 45-hour working week a job paying her around pounds 1m a year with bonuses. As the head of pension fund management at Morgan Grenfell Asset Management, she is one of the highest-flying, red-cloak-flapping women in the City. Furthermore, Ms Horlick doesn't return home to the traditional nuclear family; instead of a mere 2.4 children, she has five. And one of them has leukaemia.

Compared with the Superwoman of the Shirley Conran Seventies book, Nicola Horlick is really soaring. The Conran caricature did indeed "have it all" - career and kids - but she had to cut corners. Frivolous niceties such as mushroom-stuffing, cobweb sweeping and home-made angel costumes for a five-year-old's school nativity play were all out.

But while the average juggling mum - the Seventies Supermum - keeps dropping balls all over the place, Nicola Horlick seems to be going one better. Thanks to that ace salary, the Horlick household can afford several mushroom stuffers should they want to hold a dinner party of a weekend. Highly paid professionals, they can contract out juggling to cleaners, nannies, personal assistants and so on. Surely it's a doddle?

Against this kind of caricatured back-drop, the news that Nineties Superwoman has been grounded by her employer is bound to provoke a little Schadenfreude. Ms Horlick stands accused of trying to persuade other staff at Morgan Grenfell to join her in leaving for another job elsewhere. Such disloyalty could be in breach of her high-paying contract, and certainly puts a glorious bonus in jeopardy.

You can almost hear the crowing. There she is, Little Miss Have-it-all, finally floored by trying to have too much. Easily persuaded that she has no bond of loyalty towards her children because she works so hard, we note with glee that she is now to be punished for disloyalty to her employer.

But of course the story is unfair - on several counts.

For a start, the fact that she can afford lots of help shouldn't diminish her achievements. Five kids under the age of 10 is no picnic, no matter how much money or how much help you have. As one admiring mother of a mother of five puts it: "To each of those children you are the only mummy". The emotional demands multiply, not to mention the sheer problems of co- ordination.

Families like the Horlicks can indeed afford to hire in a nanny for every child - not to mention a house for every nanny. The nastier muddles in life can be contracted out. As a result, Nicola Horlick's life is doubtless less stressful than that of countless other women with fewer kids and fewer hours' work. Plenty would probably trade places with her with enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, just because other women work harder for less shouldn't make us sneer at Ms Horlick's success.

Meanwhile the idea of reproaching her for disloyalty to her employer is a joke. Few people in the City have a strong sense of obligation towards the institution that employs them. Rightly so. That City firm will ditch them fast enough if they screw up, or if someone else comes along better able to do the job. Poaching is commonplace. Deutsche Morgan Grenfell, the parent company that employs her, was sued by ING Barings for pounds 6m last summer after it poached 50 Latin American specialists in New York. It happens. Ms Horlick's mistake appears to have been getting caught.

Often when employees jump ship, they take members of their team with them to the next passing tanker. Nicola Horlick was taken on by Morgan Grenfell in the first place because two of her staff had been poached from Mercury Asset Management already, and said they wouldn't leave unless their boss - Nicola - was poached too.

However, as one top fund manager explained, she may have handled things in a rather clumsy way. Pointing out that she had been badly treated by her boss, sidelined in the company, and was absolutely right to look for jobs elsewhere, he said she overstepped the mark by "trying to recruit while she was still at Morgan Grenfell".

Possibly, just possibly, we react with more hostility to the idea of such cut-throat disloyalty from a woman rather than a man. When Emma Nicholson defected from the Tories to the Liberal Democrats she provoked a far more furious invective from the colleagues she left behind than did Alan Howarth, who travelled all the way to the Labour benches. Women, after all, are supposed to be more loyal, less selfishly individualistic, more committed to others, than their hubbies and sons - isn't that what we employ them for? So when a woman kicks her employer in the teeth - and gets caught at it - editors spread her photo across their pages with a glint in their eyes.

Whatever the reason for our interest in the fall of Superwoman, we had better make the most of it. For all Nicola Horlick's ground-breaking achievements, women like her may be a transitory phenomenon - the product of a particular set of circumstances at a particular time.

Fund management is in a state of flux. According to some members of the trade, that may well be why women have managed to rise so much further here than in other parts of the City, but it may mean that the Horlick work pattern - 45 hours a week, for a million a year - is unsustainable in future.

Less than a decade ago, fund management was one of the sleepiest sections of the City. Working from 9 to 5.30 was relatively common - making it attractive for anyone who wanted to get home in the evening to see the kids. As the industry consolidated and fund management became more lucrative and competitive, plenty of new opportunities were thrown up all of a sudden. The ease with which performance - at least at lower levels - can be measured (either your fund makes a lot or it doesn't) has made it relatively meritocratic. As a result, compared with other more traditional, more political parts of the City, there has been less inbuilt prejudice and resistance to women's progress. So women such as Nicola Horlick and Carol Galley were able to climb the ladder without having to work crazy hours.

But if one fund manager is right, this may not be possible for much longer. As the industry becomes ever more uptight and competitive, the hours and the sacrifices demanded from employees are likely to increase.

If you think Nicola Horlick is a Superwoman to manage her life right now, just wait until you see the people that survive in her business five years from nown