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Motherhood and Leadership: Do They Mix?

19/06/2014 16:16 BST | Updated 19/08/2014 10:59 BST

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Motherhood. Leadership. You can't have it all. Or can you? Anne-Marie Slaughter caused a stir when she considered the question a couple of years ago and it's been raised again amid rumours of Hillary Clinton's candidacy. ('Yes I can' might be a fitting slogan.)

Yet "working mother guilt" has never gone away, according to author Jessica Chivers.

Lack of support can leave women "faced with the feeling like they're not enough at either home or work" and prone to dropping out, says Chivers. "These are women who know they can deliver great things at work and raise happy, normal kids if only their and their partners' employers would trust them enough to crack on in flexible fashion."

There are ways that organisations can (and sometimes do) help: returnship schemes, Keep in Touch days, and family-friendly benefits.

There are also ways for women to actively 'manage' their time away (although there's a danger of this fostering a new 'maternity leave guilt'.)

But there's a self-perpetuating (so far) belief that "people do not generally rise to the very top by choosing flexible hours jobs". Then there's the fear that only 'exceptional women' can be both mothers and leaders.

"It isn't possible to combine a full-time career, not to mention a management position, with picking up your kids from day care," says Jenny Wahlberg, a mother and sales manager who has even worked in childcare-friendly Sweden. How many of us share her view?

Pressure often comes as much from ourselves as much as outsiders. We feel we need to get straight back to work, or live in perpetual terror because we cannot be perfect mothers.

I think more women are willing to admit that it's not an obvious choice between work and motherhood. But that doesn't alleviate the guilt.

It takes self-awareness to know what will work for you. I'd be the world's worst mother if I spent all my time looking after my children; it'd drive me crazy. But I've thought about it and made a conscious decision to work. I know plenty of women who enjoy being at home full-time.

Prioritise what matters most to you. Take Angela Ahrendts. She's the senior VP of Apple and former CEO of Burberry. Yet she believes "a woman's priority has to be her children. If I'm a better mother and a happy wife... I will be a better executive, and the company will win."

Make conscious choices

Her decisions flow from this central belief. Yours may be different. It's about making conscious choices. Think about what impact you want to have, how you want to live and work, where balance sits for you. Determine any 'shadow' (downside), and how you may be compensating for your guilt through your behaviour. Get outside (anonymous, if necessary) feedback if you know you're not great at identifying your own blind spots.

Some choices will be tougher than others. Flattering as it was, Burberry's offer meant a major upheaval for Ahrendts's family. There were months of tears and turmoil before she knew she was taking the job. This is what 'having it all' looks like: not every decision will be a snap.

It's culture, not what's on offer, that determines how people behave at work (consider how few men have taken up paternity leave). So changing attitudes starts with changing behaviour. Six months after she outlawed Saturday working at Burberry, Ahrendts still had to remind some employees to stop coming in.

Take the long view

Don't see balance as something you need to achieve every day, but over decades. Nobel prize-winning biologist Elizabeth Blackburn admits she didn't go out to dinner or the movies for a while. There will be intense times at work and with family or for whatever else you're doing, but at different stages of your life.

I think the byword of the 21st century will be expectation -- of what we want, and of getting it without cost. We expect to have high-flying careers, raise perfect kids and feel great about it all the time.

We need more imaginative career structures that move away from the one-size-fits-all job spec. But we also need to accept that our career cycle may differ from non-parents. Why shouldn't you start a company at 50? It's the average age of UK entrepreneurs, after all. Says Blackburn: "You have many decades of being productive -- being tied for 10 years is not the end of the world."

(Photo: BIS, CC 2.0)