Daily Telegraph Women’s Editor and broadcaster Emma Barnett appears to be going through a life crisis. Having spent a lifetime focused on high achievement and career, it sounds to me, to use her own words, as if she is ‘struggling to override the most primal instinct of all’.
Asked to give a Ted X talk on women, she concentrated on ambition, but not ambition in the broad sense of a strong desire to achieve something, such as bring up well-balanced children, write a book or overcome feminism, rather on ambition in that far more limited, narrow, career centred, feminist sense.
But what I suspect really troubles Emma is not, as she suggests, other women’s lack of ambition. After all what harm is that going to do her? Rather,I imagine, Emma is starting to question whether her career should be her most important goal in life. For while she may talk about ‘losing custody’ of ambition, we all know that such a loss of custody would not be particularly painful. For ambition is not a child.
In her efforts to convince us that women are ambitious and don’t prioritise families she not only gives the wrong numbers (there were 5000 respondents, not her 25,000) but also quotes highly selectively from a Harvard Business School report. In fact, if we read it we learn that “Women are more likely than men to leave the paid workforce to care for children, work part-time to care for children and make other kinds of personal and family accommodations, like declining a promotion and choosing a more flexible job”. Over 80 per cent of women saw these behaviours as the chief barriers to women’s advancement. But most significantly is a finding from the Pew Research Centre that more than 90 per cent of working mothers, who had either reduced their hours or taken a significant time off from work, say they are glad they did so.
Part of the barrier to fulfilling ambition is, according to Emma, that she, like other women, is engaged in an imitation game. By this she means she is compelled to emulate the domestic practices of her highly competent mother – a behaviour often associated with wanting domestic control.
Here Emma appears to be most confused. I would agree that women do tend to want to imitate the domestic practices of their mothers, unless ‘learning outrages’ such as feminism are perpetrated on them. After all women have been engaged in childcare and homemaking for hundreds of thousands of years and it is how we have all survived. But today’s young women usually had mothers who were working and the evidence suggests that the will to imitate them is actually rather weak.
In our own analysis of British Social Attitudes we found among the youngest group of women signs of a gradual swing back to a more traditionalfamily life. Similar findings emerged in Netmums’ research. Almost a fifth of mothers under 30 surveyed agreed with the statement that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ compared with only 6 per cent of counterparts over the age of 30. Siobhan Freegard, the Netmums founder concluded: “I think personally that young mums now look at my generation, the “have-it-all” generation, and think you lot look knackered and it doesn’t look like having it all is that great”. So, yes Emma, we are compelled to imitate our mothers, but only if they behave in a sensible way.
However, perhaps ironically the most ruinous part of Emma’s message is the way in which it damages the goals of feminism itself. For what this focus on ambition really does is toinflate the burden of expectation about what we are supposed to get out of the workplace. It now becomes the source of self-fulfilment and self-realisation, while for men I suspect, the workplace is somewhere they go to work. It is not about themselves.
So far from being as Emma suggests, more ambitious, men may actually be less ambitious and it could be this that gives them the tolerance to put up with ‘unfulfilling roles’, the patience to ignore ‘dim prospects for career advancement’, and the lower expectations which ultimately give them the plodding power, which means that they are more likely to excel at work.
Emma at the tender age of 30 seems keen to tell women what to do but with her limited life experience I think it should be the other way round. Listen up Emma. You quote author Alice Walker: “The most common way in which people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”.
Well a greedy cabal of women have been telling gullible young women like you precisely this for over 50 years. And these young women have been handing over their power to support this feminist cause.
Emma, reclaim your power. Abandon your self-limiting cage of ambition. Have as many children as you want and channel your brilliant creative energy into your wonderful little brood. Challenge your assumptions and expectations, surprise yourself and others, and when you have lived a little then come back and tell us what to do. For only then, Emma, will you have been the author of your own life.