Belfast Telegraph

Women can't have it all but maybe their daughters can

By Mary Anne Sieghart

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 university to teach 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 and spend their days at the gym. 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. "I'd been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all. 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. This is an important subset if you care about the wholly disproportionate domination of men at the top of corporate, media, financial, academic and political life.

What to do about it? Well, deeply ingrained attitudes have to change.

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People tend to like successful men and dislike successful women. Then there's the assumption that if a parent wants to work flexibly, it's a sign of lack of commitment. 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.

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 because she has seen how dangerous it can be for women to become too dependent on men. When she was eight, her mother was abandoned by her father - and Blair learned how important it was to be self-sufficient.

No, the easier way has to be fashioned by employers. Work can be compatible with children, but it has to be done 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.

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