Why mum just can't be top dog

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The Independent Online
THIS column may seem a bit derivative. It is about a book that I've just read called The Executive Tart & Other Myths - Media Women Talk Back. The book is about the sort of woman I might have been.

Usually, as a working mother, I have no time to read books properly, even on holiday. To read even a slender paperback like this from cover to cover requires time and solitude.

But I managed to finish it because, for one liberating week, a set of grandparents took the children off our hands, and life stood still. Or returned to the sweet, quiet, productive way it used to flow. Gone was a whole parallel career called parenting.

Work (what I'm doing now) was an unalloyed pleasure because I was no longer trying to shoehorn two into one, worrying about what time I'd be finishing, and would the nanny revolt. At home, unusually clean, unsticky things stayed in their place, exactly where I had last spotted them. Food remained untouched in the fridge and freezer: no need to keep rushing to Sainsbury's. I could even leave the bathroom door open from morning to night: no toddler to take advantage of a careless lapse, rush inside and start chucking everything down the loo. And there were those hours of thinking time, which I partly filled by reading Ginny Dougary's book.

She writes of a familiar milieu, and interviews 18 prominent women achievers, in television, newspapers, magazines and advertising, most of whom I know. Since the book has been released, the brassy, larger-than-life Eve Pollard, who charmed her interviewer into casting her as one of the book's media heroines, has parted ways with the Sunday Express, reducing the stock of what was once three women national editors (only a year ago) to one.

Ms Pollard's flight illustrates a major theme, laid bare in statistics collected by the author from 21 newspapers: that any upward drift of women, especially in what Kelvin MacKenzie described last week as the 'treacherous and irreverent' world of newspapers, has stalled and perhaps gone into reverse since the optimistic days of the Eighties. But then, when you read the frank interview in this book with the Sunday Times executive Sue Douglas, at least part of the explanation for this state of affairs becomes clear: you marvel that anyone got there anyway.

Ms Douglas reveals the cut- throat male politics of her former employer, the Daily Mail, and the ritual humiliation dished out to her for three and half years, day after day. 'I used to go to the loo, stand in front of the mirror and say: 'It's all right. You're better than this. It doesn't matter,' ' she told Ms Dougary.

'Her defiant, streetwise bravado is tinged with an obscurely battered quality. It is not that she comes across as a victim exactly, more like someone who has had to harden herself against abuse,' writes Ms Dougary. It is a relief to turn to the epilogue and discover that Ms Douglas gave birth to a baby last January. To hell with editorship, you just want her to live happily ever after.

Yet the real lesson of this book is that, while a person needs a particularly focused ambition to rise to anything significant in a business so relentlessly pacey as the media, those who succeed more than they fail are all different in the way they harness their ambition, that they have very little in common. There is no 'media tart' template for success; they are one-offs, save perhaps that those in executive positions tend not to have children, or have partners prepared to share more child- rearing than is conventional.

Following failed relationships and no children, Verity Lambert, doyenne of TV drama, lives alone with her soppy great dane Arthur Daley (named after the star of Minder, one of her hits). Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC Radio, has a cheery, settled relationship with a married man. Janet Street-Porter, is, well, Janet Street-Porter.

The successful women I warmed to are those who come across as relatively content, shrewdly bending the system to their own ends. Lynn Barber, the once acerbic interviewer turned highly paid columnist (she gets invited to all the good parties) is interviewed in a costly Highgate home: her husband, a lecturer, is cooking dinner, and two teenage daughters are very much in evidence. She advises any woman worth her salt to push for more money: 'I love asking for money and I'm very good at it.' And Linda Kelsey, ex-editor of Cosmopolitan, the first editor at National Magazines to have a baby and keep her job, harnessed the experience by switching to She magazine, reworking it as a magazine for young mums, like her.

The basic truth of life is that most people, men or women, are not going to get the top jobs in whatever sphere they choose: few possess the dedication or ability. Having children is an additional handicap to most women's careers. The question is whether a powerful editor's or television executive's job can be left empty (or in care of a stand-in) for months of maternity leave, when fortunes turn on the contribution of one gifted individual. I spell this out, because although the buzzwords are job sharing and flexible working, they only apply - they can only apply - near the bottom and middle of life's power echelons.

The Executive Tart, Virago, pounds 7.99.