Why Women Just Can't Have It All

23/08/2011 11:20 | Updated 22 May 2015

I think it's safe to say that, all in all, last week was a pretty rubbish week to be female.

Having already had a ribbing from the press about apparently spending one third of our waking lives chatting (or 'gossiping'), and for apparently spending over £100,000 on cosmetics during in our adult lives, we then got the real shocker with a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission: the prediction that even if things started changing right now, it would take 70 years for women to achieve absolute parity in the workplace.

The statistics made for grim reading: women account for just 12.5 of national newspaper editors; only 12.9 of MPs (and at their current rate of their appointment, this would take 14 general elections to redress).

Assuming we're not all just too busy idly chatting with our mates about our weight and relationship issues – or indeed troweling on all that make-up – to spend the time getting the top jobs, there must be deeply rooted sociological reasons for those figures. And, of course, women of a certain age are considerably more likely to be at home raising a family at a time when they might otherwise be reaching the pinnacle of their career.

Published in the Guardian a couple of months ago, a fascinating extract from Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion Of Equality, by Rebecca Asher, discussed the surprising way in which modern couples, where both work and approach the relationship on an equal footing, seem to revert to rather traditional gender roles once children come into the equation. One sentence summed it up: "Giving birth and breastfeeding permanently defines a woman's life and differentiates it from a man's."

And that really is the crux of the thing. We do have very deeply entrenched gender roles, which do steer the life paths of many. There was the blip of 'Generation X', female members of which were actively encouraged into previously male-dominated careers, and brought up with the idea that motherhood was a choice, not a given (a recent American study has shown that consequently 43% of women born during that time have not had children). But for other generations of women, the prospect of child bearing – and rearing – has always been on the agenda.

If many career women find themselves surprised at how easily their relationships turn into something more traditional than they ever thought it would be, even more surprised are the career women who find themselves actually choosing it to be so, feeling instinctively that they are better equipped to care for the kids.

But that's part of the culture. Yes, women are literally wired to cope with an infant's every whim in those first few vulnerable months – but that belief continues way past the time when a mother is actually more capable of care giving than a father. Even though modern dads get stuck in at the weekends and the evenings, it is so often the mother's working life that is permanently changed (leaving at 5 for the nursery pick up, or taking the afternoon off because of a playground vomiting incident). These things are not conducive to career progression.

We live in a time when girls are brought up to believe they can have it all – but they can not. In fact a recent study proved it. The Telegraph reported last week that, of 1,600 women surveyed (all of whom had families), those who worked were less likely to be depressed. However, among those working mothers, the happiest were those women who accepted they could not "do it all" – they either let career goals slide or they passed some childcare responsibilities to their partner.

How interesting this summation: "The survey found that young women who firmly believed they could combine employment with family care were more likely to suffer from depression later in life than those who were less ambitious. Expecting to be able to combine work and family life without making sacrifices, such as leaving the office early to do the school run, made women feel guilty when they struggled to do so."

So while the solutions required to redress the balance and create the infrastructure for a fairer future seem clear (eradicate sexism in the workplace (and that means you too David Cameron, and your pledge for more female MPs); equalise maternity and paternity benefits; equalise pay – so that in times of austerity, it is not the 'obvious choice' that the lower paid wife should give up her job because of increasingly expensive childcare; actively encourage employers to make returning to work easier for women who have had a break), it just isn't that simple.

The truth is, none of those things will happen any time soon – because of the very deep rooted belief, held by both the sexes, that it is more proper for the woman to be in the home. Men will always be defined by their careers; women will be defined by their careers too, but also by whether or not they have children. Not to mention what they look like of course, hence that £100k on make-up.


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