Julie Lynn: How many women really want to ‘have it all’?

Throwing it all away? Throwing what away? The Daily Mail ran a piece recently about how often high-profile women at the top of their game find it tricky to stay in place, when they’ve ‘given everything’ to get there. The article cited as examples major players such as Theresa May, Jill Abramson, formerly executive editor of the New York Times, Yahoo former CEO Marissa Mayer, Harriet Green, former CEO of Thomas Cook, and Nathalie Nougayrede, erstwhile editor of the French daily newspaper Le Monde.

It was the headline, though, that really gave away how women ought to be running their lives: ‘Why do some women have it . . . then throw it all away?’

The implication is clear. Women should be able to have it all and keep it all, as well of course to want it all in the first place. The ‘it’ is that career summit which should be the goal of all right-thinking, ambitious, modern women, certainly those who’ve benefited from extended education; the ‘it’ equals those sunlit uplands of the workplace where a woman finally has the power, responsibility, professional fulfilment and peer recognition that she has slogged long and hard for, often at considerable cost in terms of family life.

The use of the word ‘all’ is what rams it home to the reader. It tells us that we need to find it truly astonishing that it doesn’t always go swimmingly for women in top jobs, women who ‘have it all’. As opposed, presumably, to women who don’t follow that career path to the dizzy heights. You know the ones I mean, women with very little to show really. At least in career terms, which is what counts, isn’t it? That forlorn, essentially unfulfilled and unemancipated bunch for whom children and family were the priority and for whom sacrifices were made way before there was even a glimmer of a path to the boardroom. Women with one or more jobs to juggle rather than careers. Women who are full-time mothers. Most women, in fact.



The article goes to some length to discern why there is this fall from grace off something called a ‘glass cliff’. Among the reasons picked over concerning the above-mentioned women are the tendency to micro-management, rudeness to staff, secrecy, misjudgment about who to trust, disinclination to trust, lack of respect for others, inability and/or unwillingness to listen and understand, arbitrariness of decision-making, failure to consult and involve others, failure to communicate. In the case of Le Monde’s former rédactrice en chef there were apparently ‘Putinesque tendencies’. Which might be enough to put anybody’s nose out of joint.

The assessment amongst career and leadership coaches who were asked to delve into this career ‘self-sabotaging’ by women posited such phenomena as ‘imposter syndrome’. This is where the sense of one’s own success being essentially down to luck and timing has consequences that get in the way of that leadership being ‘strong and stable’. Those consequences include self-doubt, stage fright, bunker mentality, control freakery and the need to show that one is constantly in possession of information and answers to problems. Which doesn’t look like a recipe for getting much sleep. The coaches duly confirm that sleep problems are indeed an issue (with not eating well either, as well as decreasing commitment to early-morning sessions in the gym) that end up clouding women leaders’ judgment and performance.

Taken with what we can assume are other factors, such as women at the top knowing they have to perform better than male counterparts to avoid the chop, and constant scrutiny in a way that men do not have to endure (see Mrs May’s £995 leather trousers), it’s small wonder that women as leaders find themselves in that jump-or-get-pushed situation. Seriously, who’d want it? That’s the question. Are women up for it? Another two questions are: Are women up TO it? And why do we expect that women SHOULD be up to it, given that many have priorities outside the workplace? Jenni Murray on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour was in fact agonising recently about why there are not more women Brexit negotiators all lined up for the task ahead. Is it really that hard to work out?

It’s not, if you are allowed to face up to the obvious, scientific explanation, which is what I am going to be writing about tomorrow.

Julie Lynn

  • Jonathan Tedd

    Yes the Woman’s Hour piece was excruciatingly PC. My unhappiest career periods? Having a female manager.

    • suemary

      The worst bully I ever encountered was a woman head teacher

      • digoridoo

        The worst bully I ever encountered was my mother.

        • suemary

          I’m sorry to her that. No mother should be a bully.

          • digoridoo

            Thank you.

  • Colkitto03

    The real lives of working women are a million miles from what our metropolitan Feminist elite understand.
    A couple of years ago I was speaking to a very nice, professional, educated, woman at a work event in London. She was within a few weeks of giving birth to her first child but leaving maternity leave as late as possible. In conversation it was apparent that her entire wage went on thier expensive suburban mortgage whilst her husbands wage covered all the other bills. She planned only to take the minimum maternity leave possible as she had no option but to get back on her full wage ASAP

    It stuck me that this lady had zero choice, no options.
    I could sense a degree of sadness about her when she talked about the coming months. Not knowing what it was going to be like having a new baby and not knowing what it was going to feel like leaving it in childcare.

    I can only speculate but my intuition told me this lady was didn’t feel she was ‘having it all’

    • paul parmenter

      I can relate to this. A few years back I was at a family gathering and had a conversation with the young wife of one of my more distant relatives. She told me she had just given up a high profile, well-paid job in banking, and was now training to be a nurse. I asked her why this change, which most people would see as a big step down. She said that she simply couldn’t stand the pressure, the commitment, the demands of the banking job. It was driving her to despair, and she was glad to be rid of it all. Her husband was earning enough to pay all the bills and maintain their joint lifestyle, so it was no material loss. She had always felt cut out to go into nursing, and she was now happier than she had ever been. It wasn’t about the money or prestige, she just needed to feel she was doing what meant the most to her.

      Quite a few lessons in there, including the often-forgotten one about how having a partner who is willing to give up his choices, gives you the freedom to exercise yours.

      • Colkitto03

        Really great post Paul, especially that final paragraph. Husbands and wives are a team. Kudos to that lady for changing her career. It can be very tough to take that step.

  • PierrePendre

    Is it true that women have to fight harder to get to the top and harder to stay there? Or is it something that people say because it’s something people say? According to the Peter Principle, everyone eventually reaches their level of incompetence and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t apply to women. There’s no denying May miscalculated spectacularly in calling the wrong general election and the cost of her trousers is neither here nor there. The idea that women can never win is a self-serving feminist trope whose main purpose is to maintain the pretence of perpetual grievance. If I’m a wage slave, I don’t give a damn whether the boss is flying a flag for women everywhere. What I care about is her ability to protect my job by doing hers competently.

  • suemary

    This all ignores the fact that most women and indeed most men don’t have careers. Most PEOPLE have jobs: boring, tedious, underpaid and undervalued jobs and all this feminist agonising doesn’t even touch them. Look around you. For most people all these hand-wringing anxieties are an irrelevance consumed by the need to manage on little money.

    • Kathy Gyngell

      You are right and this is exactly what Julie is saying – most women don’t want a top job – feminist angxt is indeed an irrelevance to most people – except unfortunately those in power

  • Simon Platt

    I can quite understand why Theresa May would suffer from imposter syndrome.

    • PutinCooksSocks

      What do you mean? If a male Prime Minister wore a pair of £995 leather trousers and leopardskin high heels at a peace summit, no one would bat an eyelid!

      It’s sexism, I tell you! Male privilege!

      …erm…

  • LoveMeIamALiberal

    Nobody can have it all. You have to choose on what to devoted the limited number of hours in each day. That women may tend to make different choices from men should come as no surprise unless you’re daft enough to believe there are no differences between women and men.

  • PutinCooksSocks

    Imagine a household in the 1950s.

    The man spends 8 hours a day in the office or down the pit, 8 hours at home, and 8 asleep. Because he spends 8 hours a day at home, he can see the hard work and the drudgery of his wife’s life. He sees the made beds, the clean laundry, the meal on the table.

    The wife spends 16 hours a day at home, and 8 asleep. She rarely, if ever, visits her husband’s place of work, certainly not when he is at his busiest. What he does is largely a mystery to her. She simply sees the pay he receives at the end of it.

    To the wife, the husband’s work – and the money it generates – seems like a path to all kinds of freedoms. She does not realize that her husband’s life is just like her own, filled with drudgery and hard work. and that only the location is different.

    Fast forward 65 years. The wife realizes now. But it is too late.