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How to Be a Useful Woman

10/07/2014 11:18 BST | Updated 08/09/2014 10:59 BST

I've always hated women's events. I never really saw the point. So I kind of judged myself for the fact that last night, I wasn't just at one, but also organised the whole shebang. (We hosted 75 aspiring female entrepreneurs at the opening event of Escape the City's 'She Series'.) As I was busy judging myself, I forced myself to remember why I had kicked off this event series.

A few years ago, I started noticing that when I met CEOs, they were men; when I met PAs, they were women. At tech or startup events, I'd often be the only woman. And really - did it matter? Yet at certain work meetings, something inside me would flicker whenever a senior male executive would say something borderline inappropriate (not rude enough to report to HR, but dodgy enough that he would never repeat the words if my father was in the room).

My newfound gender consciousness wasn't about boundary issues or the working motherhood debate. It was about figuring out how I could be useful to a universe where a woman was no longer sentenced to life in the kitchen yet was apprehensive about life in the boardroom.

I watched Sheryl Sandberg's TED talk on why we have too few women leaders and read Lean In and Bossypants and The End of Men and Anne-Marie Slaughter's warning that we can't have it all.

Even after my self-imposed mini-crash-course on women's issues in the 21st century, I still bought into what I've always believed (that passion and talent are gender-neutralising forces). But I became more aware of a gnawing tension within myself - an internal battle between the feminine urge to nest and the masculine urge to hunt.

Hunting and Nesting

If you're an entrepreneur, you're a hunter: you're looking to grow your resources to bring back to the cave and there's something fundamentally masculine about that. Meanwhile, females are socially conditioned to focus on nesting - on making the cave look pretty and taking care of the children.

But this is the generation that is seeing a new blending of the masculine and the feminine: we're going to have more female CEOs and more stay-at-home Dads. At last night's event, I emphasised to our attendees that focusing on the word 'female' in the phrase 'female entrepreneur' isn't as important as focusing on the word 'entrepreneur'.

I am grateful for living in an era where I can go to a tech event and geek out with male peers about hunting matters, then go home and bake gluten-free cookies with my girlfriends while we gossip about nesting matters.

This gives me faith that years from now, I'll still be able to go to work to hunt all day, then come home and play with my kids and hang out with my husband and somehow make it all work.

The Ovaries Issue

All you have to do to realise the vastness of your own ignorance about women's issues is to watch a close girlfriend become a parent. It's happened to me twice now, and with each friend popping out a baby that requires 24/7 attention, I feel more and more uninformed about what it is that I actually want out of life and what I'm allowed to realistically desire.

I watch them grapple with questions that never even occurred to me; I see their priorities re-shuffling; I realise how very little I know about the realities of being an ambitious woman who is also a parent.

At this unmarried and childless point in my life, my opinions on balancing career and family are feeble. I can't even begin to imagine (let alone understand) the relentless guilt that seems to underpin working motherhood, as Indra K. Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo discusses here.

At last night's event, I said that I wanted to steer the event away from the "women in business" tone because it's not about being "a woman". We are all ambitious people. We are all curious people. We happen to be women, and so we have ovaries. This comes with a set of issues that only some people understand.

Once, I heard that being a woman in business is like being a Chinese businessman in America. It's simply another layer of experience that not everyone might relate to, and it's tough to decide within yourself if you're going to let that layer become a core or a peripheral part of how you interact with those around you. If I ever mention the concept of a biological clock to male colleagues, they stare at me blankly.

Similarly, I accept that I don't always understand what they're going through with their own financial clocks ticking (that social pressure they feel to earn a certain salary). But as long as we understand each other enough to keep hunting together effectively, it doesn't really seem to matter that we slightly differ on primal levels.

Writing Your Own Rules

This is an era in which women have the freedom to become wives and mothers, and/or Fortune 500 CEOs, and/or President, and/or whatever they choose to be.

I know women whose sole aim is to lock down a husband and a house. I know women who are so focused on their career that their Blackberry has become their boyfriend. I'm friends with all kinds of women, and I don't think there's anything wrong with husband-hunting or status-chasing if that's what makes you happy. I just like women who are so engaged and happy living their own lives that they don't have time to ruminate or judge what others are doing.

A key reason why I used to feel uncomfortable at women's events is because when I was dragged along to them, they seemed full of career-oriented women who judged stay-at-home mothers. It seemed like most of this disdain arose from their worldview that to be useful, a woman needed to hunt.

I subscribe to the (gender agnostic) advice offered by Burberry's former CEO Angela Ahrendts at a commencement speech she delivered to her alma mater:

"The game changing question is, do you truly know what your Core Purpose in life is, your fundamental reason for existence, and can you clearly articulate your Core Values, your guiding principles?"

She quotes management guru Jim Collins: "A Core Purpose is your reason for being, it captures your soul, with the primary role to guide and inspire. You cannot fulfil a Purpose, it is like a guiding star on the horizon - forever pursued, but never reached."

She says, "Identifying your Core Values early in life will help provide clarity into the type of organization you want to work for, the type of people you want to be with, and the type of leader you aspire to be."

At last night's event, we heard from Emilie Holmes of Good & Proper tea; Harriot Pleydell-Bouverie of Mallow & Marsh; Victoria Eggs of Victoria Eggs; Lizzie Fane of ThirdYearAbroad.com; and the ladies from Broad Minded.

What gives me faith in the power of women is watching ladies like them live out the concepts that Ahrendts describes. Maybe leaning in isn't always about climbing to the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company. Maybe being a good mother isn't always about picking up your kids from school.

Obviously, I don't know the answers yet. But what I have figured out so far is that being useful starts with learning how to just be. And finding meaning in wherever that may lead.

Escape the City is an online community dedicated to helping corporate professionals to do something different. We run regular offline events via The Escape School - the career, life and startup education you never got at school.