Why are only women supposed to compromise?

A former manager contacted me the other day. That happens fairly frequently, and flatteringly enough, the communication is usually an offer to come and work with them in whichever company they’ve recently joined. This time, I wrote back explaining that as I was on maternity leave, I would not be available until next year. Quite a few colleagues have responded with something along the lines of “Congratulations; that’s not what I expected you to be doing”. I always find it a bit deflating.  While I like the fact that they clearly view me as someone who works hard, takes their career seriously and is fairly driven to succeed, their implied disappointment suggests that children are anathema to career success. There’s an instant idea that what I might want to do next won’t be quite as ambitious, because of course I’m not Yes Woman any more. I can’t say, “yes, I’ll take a consulting job that involves travelling to another city at 2 hours’ notice”, or “yes, it might be 6 pm, but I’m quite happy to spend the next three hours rewriting a dodgy presentation for tomorrow”.

But most of the managers I have worked for have children, and they neither stay late in the office, nor travel much – or when they do, it is well planned. After all, the whole point of being a manager is that other, often younger, people can be asked to do the antisocial hours. There is never a sense that the manager in question has in some way compromised anything; he’s just a good delegator, which of course is viewed as a positive.

The media seems quite intent on asking intrusive questions on the personal life of successful women. If they’re childless, they prioritised their career at the expense of children. If they have children, they must have to skip some of the work, and that must explain why there are almost no female CEOs. In fact, they virtually have to say that they skip some engagements, otherwise they’d be branded bad mothers for never seeing their children. A recent Times interview with Angela Ahrendts (the CEO of Burberry) was no exception. The transcript spent at least a third of the time exploring the topic of how she “juggles” (why always bloody juggling, like we’re all dreadlocked buskers) her three children with her job and her marriage. Annoyingly, she went straight for the bait and explained that she does not accept invitations to events like the Oscars, because that would not be fair on her family. I’ve never heard any male CEO either being asked to justify the time they spend working, or offering up some sort of compromise on the basis of family obligations.

I have no solution to any of this. It is generally true that if you’ve spent at least six months constantly caring for an infant, you will miss them in a very different way to how your husband might miss them during the working day. And fighting other people’s assumptions every day at work is such an uphill struggle that I often think it isn’t worth it. I’ll never get anywhere, because I can’t really be arsed to keep fighting my corner and proving myself. I bought 13 years of a career was proof enough, but mostly people just ask me how my baby is getting on.

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