Once upon a time, a little girl dreamed of being a lawyer. Or a doctor, a scientist, a writer, a vet. She did well at school; teachers and parents encouraged her to study, and go on to University. If she knuckled down and applied her brain, she could become anything she wanted.
These days, women’s choices are notably broader than a generation ago. Despite the fact that – even now – only 16% of company board members are women, it feels as though we’re moving towards a consensus that women can, and should, be able to succeed in the workplace. Anti-discrimination laws have been tightened up; and high-profile campaigns, like the Everyday Sexism Project, make it commonplace to name and shame the perpetrators of derogatory remarks and actions.
All this is for the good. It spells out a more equitable society, with young women feeling they don’t need to put up with being held back from realising their dreams.
But there is a flip side.
In a recent article by Giles Coren, the journalist claims that “Men are judged by their career choices and wealth. Women are free to define themselves in other ways.” Coren argues that his daughter won’t face as many pressures as his son to succeed in her career. He describes how his own urge to be a “big, swinging dick” forced him away from his pleasant “life of part-time work and domesticity”, towards fame and fortune as a TV bigshot in the States.
The problem is, women do increasingly feel this urge*. I see this in friends who have, reluctantly but proudly, returned to work and handed over the care of their children to someone else. I feel it in myself, whenever another Mum from my circle tells me they’re going back to their old job, and I experience that familiar stab of envy.
Just as men are now increasingly facing pressures to be body-beautiful, women are being encouraged from an early age to believe that, if they work hard enough, they can have the same money, success and power as men. This is to be applauded, but (sadly for both women AND men), a quest for these sorts of ideals often means having to nurture the ego Coren was invoking when he called himself a “swinging dick”. Or, at the very least, it means carrying around the sort of self-belief that allows natural talent and bull-headedness to override setbacks and office politics.
But what happens to these egos if they’re not being stoked by career-based plaudits?
Once you’ve bought into the idea that success in life = success in one’s career (and, let’s face it, if a young girl shows any promise and is encouraged into a decent job, it’s hard for her not to), it’s difficult to step off the ladder without feeling as though some dreams of the future have been sacrificed.
In my own case, I know I’ve made the right choice in suspending my career to look after my children, full-time, through their early years. I wouldn’t miss out on one minute of the mess, blubbing or rollocking bear-hugs of child-rearing, in exchange for a skinny latte in a tranquil office.
But the little girl I used to be, is wondering what to make of the fact that all the old markers of her future success (a decent salary, promotions, sitting at a desk with a brimming in-tray) have been thrown out in favour of making sure the kids are dressed in (semi-) clean clothes, and that we all get through the day with the giggles-to-tears ratio heavily skewed towards the former.
And whatever happened to the well turned-out, besuited woman who stepped, fresh, out of the door at 8.09 precisely, every weekday morning?
This week, I acknowledged that she was long-gone, last seen struggling to squeeze an emerging bump into her favourite grey pencil skirt. So I sent that skirt, the accompanying jacket, and several other items of good-quality clothing which – if not exactly well-loved – were markers of my former, career-oriented self, to Smart Works, the charity that provides formal workwear to women on low incomes, so they can attend job interviews with confidence.
Who knows? I may need to borrow them back one day.
*Not the urge to be swinging dicks, of course. Maybe just smartly dressed, competent individuals who are using their years of education and training in a job they’ve been primed most of their lives to perform.
This post was chosen to feature on the front page of Mumsnet Bloggers Network. It was originally published as week 13 of Our Time of Gifts, my year-long experiment in giving stuff away.