Mary Ann Sieghart: Women still can't have it all – but perhaps their daughters can

The 20th-century model designed for men with wives at home isn't suited to the 21st century

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Life is so confusing for well-educated young women. Can they really have it all? Do they first have to find a partner who will let them? Even if they do, will they feel guilty about neglecting their children? You can see why many are tempted to try to find a rich husband and play at being yummy mummies instead.

Last week, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Hillary Clinton's most senior policy adviser, wrote a heartfelt cover story for The Atlantic magazine entitled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All", explaining why, after two years, she gave up her stratospheric job to go back to Princeton and spend more time with her family. Meanwhile, Helen Fraser of the Girls' Day School Trust said girls needed to choose their partners as carefully as their careers. And Cherie Blair lamented the lack of ambition of young women who want to marry a rich man, push expensive buggies around and spend the rest of their day at the gym and the hairdresser.

Fraser is right to warn ambitious young women that their choice of partner is as important as their choice of career. You can only have a stab at combining the pressures of work and family if the father of your children shares the domestic chores and childcare, and is as enthusiastic as you are about your career success. Look at the few women who have got near the top of their professions, and almost of all of them have either no children or a very supportive husband.

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, has given a wonderful TED talk (Google it) in which one of her three tips for women is, "Make your partner a real partner". It has extra advantages: she cites research showing that couples with equal earnings and equal domestic responsibilities have half the divorce rate and better sex lives.

But while an accommodating and supportive husband is necessary for women to do well at work, it may not be sufficient. And that's what lies at the heart of Anne-Marie Slaughter's cri de coeur. Her husband took sole responsibility for their two sons while she was in Washington during the week, but still she eventually found it unbearable. Her 14-year-old had become a classic stroppy adolescent, and she blamed her absence for his ills.

And then she started questioning her beliefs, and the messages she had been passing on to her Princeton students. "I'd been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I'd been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)."

We are, of course, talking about the subset of young women who have gone to university, got a degree and have the luxury of some choice about what they do in life. Many millions of other women are stuck in soulless low-paid jobs with no prospect of promotion. But this is an important subset if you care – as you should – about the wholly disproportionate domination of men at the top of corporate, media, professional, financial, academic and political life. The only way to address that imbalance is to help capable women to combine their careers with their children.

What to do about it? Well, deeply ingrained attitudes have to change. Sandberg cited a Harvard Business School study in which two groups of students were asked to look at a case study of a venture capitalist. The studies were identical, except for the first name of the investor: one was called Heidi Roizen, the other Howard. And guess what? Both were deemed equally competent, but Howard was seen as more likeable, genuine and kind, while Heidi was seen as aggressive, self-promoting and power-hungry. People tend to like successful men and dislike successful women. That's not a good start. As Sandberg says ruefully: "I want my daughter to have the choice not just to succeed, but to be liked for her accomplishments."

Then there's the assumption that if a parent wants to work flexibly, it's a sign of lack of commitment. Parents are fantastic at time management: if they need to leave the office before their childless colleagues, they can get twice as much done before they go, or catch up with emails after the children are in bed. But too many employers still insist on measuring staff by the hours they spend at their desk, not their actual productivity. As a result, they often lose their best (usually female) employees. I left a job I'd been in for 19 years because my boss said I could no longer work from Wiltshire, where my family was, in August, even though I was prepared to write every day while my colleagues were on holiday.

 

So maybe it's no wonder that our daughters watch us fight these battles and conclude that there must be an easier way. But being a yummy mummy is not necessarily an easy option. Cherie Blair disparaged that choice not because she thinks stay-at-home mums are worthless, but because she has seen how dangerous it can be for women to become too dependent on their men.

When she was just eight, her own mother was abandoned by her father – and Blair learned how important it was for women to be self-sufficient. Even the richest of men can slough you off for a younger model. If you have no employment history to fall back on, life can be very tough.

No, the easier way has to be fashioned by employers. As Blair said last week, "We need to devise business strategies that allow women to make choices that are not 'all or nothing' choices." Work can be compatible with children, but it has to be done differently and more flexibly. That doesn't mean that it will be done worse. We have to recognise that the 20th-century model designed for workaholic men with wives at home isn't suited to 21st-century family structures.

Parents of both sexes have to be cut some slack. Only then will women – as well as men – have a chance of having it all.

m.sieghart@independent.co.uk / twitter.com/MASieghart

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