It's a fact: no man can ever come close to judging women's parenting and work choices as harshly as other women. I've just been writing a TV adaptation of my novels that - apparently unusually for a male author - feature a hard working woman as the central character (Jenny Cooper is a rather emotionally damaged coroner). The women who have given me notes - a director, producer and script editor - have all been savage in their criticism of Jenny's parenting skills and failure to combine faultless professional competence with cheerful single-parenting.
Each also tended to want Jenny's experience to mirror her own, but, I noted, to have it significantly improved upon. These capable women all seemed beset by deep anxiety. None of them was confident in her choices; none truly secure in her relationship with her children.
Stuck in the middle - I'm only a guy who created the character and has lived with her night and day for five days - I can't win, except in the sense that in whatever direction Jenny gets pushed, it'll be good for drama: while one army of women lines up to excoriate her, another will hopefully cheer her on. I guess it's one of the reasons I chose to write a female character struggling with all the complexities of the work/life conundrum - nothing she ever does will be good enough. Much of the entertainment my mostly female readers experience is in judging her efforts against their own.
I read a lot of articles by women about women, and listen to a lot of female politicians repeating the same pleas to do more to make the workplace more female friendly, but hear very little that sounds genuinely reflective of what I've observed to be women's real experience.
I left a co-ed school in the mid-80s with an unquestioningly assuming that male and female were being presented with identical opportunities. I studied law at Oxford - there were more male than female students, but the women were invariably more driven and conscientious than the men. They all landed great jobs. Ten to fifteen years later it was all change. The women started to have babies and were faced with trying to marry motherhood with careers that demanded around the clock attention. The result: rapid career carnage.
The women that have carried on as successful lawyers post-children fall into two camps: the tough-nuts who send their kids to boarding school at six, and those with partners who fill the homemaker role. Neither group has as close and intimate a relationship with their children as those who chose to put family 'first'. It's not a judgement, it's just plain to see.
Women lawyers, doctors and senior business-types have clients, patients and customers whose needs have to come before their own. There is, in reality, no prospect of them achieving a 'healthy' work/life balance. They will simply experience an agonising sequence of choices with no ideal answers. Hence the concentration of women in jobs where being permanently on call and indispensible isn't a requirement. Walk through the BBC and you'll struggle to find a man. The same is true of much of the civil service and the big utilities - all places where the individual is subsumed by the whole.
Can women's working lives be made any easier? Should they be? Perhaps these are the wrong questions. Getting a job doesn't seem to be the problem; the issue is the emotional juggling act women have to perform. We men remain largely passive observers to this dilemma, wanting to help but often not knowing how.
I watched my wife go through the torment of trying to remain a commercial barrister with two young children. I wanted her to succeed at both, but when the kids developed a closer bond with the nanny than with her, something primal kicked in. She couldn't make the conscious break with work, but rather got ill and had to quit. Our lives and expectations changed for good. And almost immediately the non-working mothers who had previously shunned her at the school gates welcomed her with open arms. Only then, she says, did she realise quite how harshly they had been judging her.
Legislation may help women a little more, but we have to be realistic - there will always be hideous work/life conflicts, and many women will continue not to want to work in the most demanding jobs with young kids at home. The best we can do is take age out of the equation and remove the pressure to succeed young. There's no reason you can't suspend a career for ten years or start one in middle-age. Women might be able to have it all, but not all at once. And if we make that shift, maybe women will cut each other some slack and start judging each other a little less!