Saturday, 14 November 2009

the toxic sisterhood

I LOVE the primal feeling of relief after a big storm: that forgotten animal reflex, presumably dating from the days when howling winds threatened more than just the roof tiles.
So during a brief lull in the torrential rain we took the dog across the meadows to the swollen river, on the principle that there is nothing a toddler enjoys more than inspecting wreckage they haven't personally caused
After an hour of the boy rapturously dragging broken branches about I'm feeling unusually calm. Calm enough to tackle a tricky subject.
Last week, the Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman wrote a piece for the Daily Mail arguing that women are making themselves harder to hire with their pesky demands for time with their kids.
Yesterday, the Times columnist Janice Turner wrote a piece arguing mothers should stop whining, including a dig at "media mummies penning tear-stained farewells to careers that they can’t combine with caring for one small baby." Who knows who she had in mind?
I admire both as journalists: I agreed with large parts of Turner's column, which was actually about selfishness, and bits of Shulman's. But what both pieces shared was a whiff of "I had it hard, so should you."
Turner hurt because I (usually) love her column: Shulman I found disappointing because of her feistiness in challenging issues like fashion's fixation with thinness. But either piece, written by a man, would have neither surprised nor troubled me. So why does it matter that they were written by women?
Many women harbour expectations that female bosses will be "sisterly" - help other women up the ladder, empathise with family pressures - and feel far more betrayed by senior women who don't play this game than by their male counterparts.
Margaret Thatcher still gets attacked for not putting women in her cabinet, while the US politician Madeleine Albright suggests a "place in Hell reserved for women who don't support other women". Policies aimed at getting more women into senior roles are based on assumptions that doing so will change the culture.
And many female bosses do go out of their way to stand up for younger women: the Elle magazine editor Lorraine Candy wrote a brilliant column rebutting Shulman in the same paper, while Red magazine's Sam Baker argued on Twitter that flexiworking meant hiring great women for less money - what's not to like?
But while it's heartening when you see it, is it realistic always to expect sisterliness?
Given that managers often promote people who think like them, is it surprising if a woman reaching the top of a tough environment turns out to share the views of the (mostly) men around her?
Who knows what pressures she is under to keep that job? Does every female boss have to be defined by her sex? Who can judge how far her views are sharpened by any private defensiveness about her own choices?
Having just ignored an invite from a newspaper diary to get drawn into a silly catfight with (yet another) female columnist, I also suspect working women don't benefit from the divide and rule strategy of inviting us to scrap in public.
So I'm setting myself some rules on this blog. I'll take issue with anyone's public stance (their views on policy, or what they do as employers). But I'll never judge their private or personal choices around mothering and work.
I'll try not to apply higher standards to women than to men. And nothing I say about my own life should ever be interpreted as a criticism of anyone else's choices, from lifelong stay at home mother to full on fulltimer.
And if I break these rules I'll happily be called on it by anyone reading this blog. Meanwhile, I'd love to know about your experience of either being, or working for, a female boss.....


  1. As a mom to a 6 month old and a woman going back to work shortly, I applaud your effort to document this process Gaby. While I might not agree with everything you have to say or feel like your choices are right for all (which you have certainly *not* posited), I think we're all better off for having this conversation. I'm hopeful that you as someone with a public profile can raise these issues and foster a fruitful debate.

    While I realize this may sound na├»ve to some, it's unclear to me why it is so difficult for us all (moms, women, people in general) to simply strive to listen to each other. Personal life choices are simply that—personal.

    This is all to say, thank you for sharing and giving voice to a situation that myself and many of my friends and co-workers are in. While your voice may not speak for me at all times, I’m interested to see where this conversation goes and how we can learn to make better choices about family and career together based on a mutual respect for the choices and experiences that we all have.

  2. I applaud your dignified response to the toxic sisterhood. As someone who has experienced it first-hand, I believe the only way to make change is to be the instrument of change you seek to bring about.

    There's no greater gift to to yourself (or to the greater society) than to take the high road, do what works for you and your family and use the gifts you have in a way that you personally find most rewarding. I happen to agree with your choices. However, as you state, it is completely wrong to judge those who make different choices regarding work and family.

    In my experience, some of the women managers I've know have overcompensated in being too aggressive and hostile to other women, seeing them as threats instead of assets to them. Some of them have been wonderful mentors, the best and most supportive I've had. I've really experienced the whole spectrum. The professional world seems to bring out the best and worst of us!

  3. Turner's column disappointed me too, especially her statement that mothers have never had it so good. Compared to my mother, who was lucky enough to raise my brother and I near her parents and have that support (which is what enabled her to return to work part time), I've got a harder challenge. So many of us have moved away from family for work commitments, following jobs for ourselves or our partners.

    I had a wonderful mentor at work, a woman who really did go out of her way to help those of us coming through the ranks. But when I told her I was going to quit work to stay at home, I knew she was very disappointed. In contrast, my equally wonderful male supervisor was much more understanding of my decision to put my boys ahead of my career for a while.

    Maybe these senior women see our choices as hurting all women; I'm very aware that my decision to stay home will unfortunately reinforce sexist stereotypes in my old workplace. I feel guilty about that. Perhaps this is why senior women are so wary of aiding their junior counterparts, people like me let them down...

  4. Oh, this has touched a nerve with me. For some reason I have only ever had male bosses until recently. In fact, for many years I was 'the boss' in the sense that I headed up large teams for different companies (in IT and the automotive industries) and I did the hiring and firing. I like to think I was a very fair boss, and was very sensitive to people's personal situations. I also employed people for the long-term, so naturally people would have reasons for flexible working etc, but if they were worth employing they were also worth keeping. It also helped to promote a sense of mutual loyalty and I think it worked well.

    Fast forward several years and I now work in a primary school as a teaching assistant (long story which I wrote briefly about in reply to one of your former posts) and my boss is a woman. She's also 4 years younger than me and she is - in her own words - career driven, and is single without children. She recently stated in a staff meeting that everyone in *her* school should put their job first and their family second. This, from someone without dependents might sound easy enough, but the fact that she is a Headteacher should sound alarm bells in that she is advocating parents should sideline their childen for their careers.

    In addition, and if that wasn't enough, she also said (in a different staff meeting) that the only two members of staff who 'really needed their jobs' were me and her because 'we don't have men supporting us at home'. Yes, really.

    Incidentally she is currently suspended from work because of a complaint of bullying and harassment.

  5. Hi Gaby
    I produce a talkback radio program in Adelaide. Your story will resonate with SO many here in Australia. People are really grasping for a poster-girl for work-life balance. Can you flick me an email so I can arrange a chat with you and our presenter, Amanda Blair? She is a mother of 4 (all under five). I realise that media requests are yet another burden on your quest for balance but I hope you can find time to spread the message. Sorry to contact you this way...couldn't find any other details. My email is mbowley at dmgradio dot com dot au - thanks, Monique

  6. Do agree with your stance - I have been a boss for many years while a working mother and have also worked for a wide range of men and women from the excellent to the bullies. The best of them all said to me - when I explained I had to leave on the dot of five every day - that he was concerned with outputs not inputs. In my experience working mothers are some of the most effcient people in the world.

  7. If I can make a gentle comment. I think one of the reasons even some women in the same boat get a little bit tired sometimes of "media mummies" is that media mummies have something most women don't: the opportunity to pursue their passion (writing, communicating, whatver)
    part-time, or self-employed, or even unpaid. Moreover, returning to your field after a 5 year absence is relatively easy.

    Now imagine you are, I don't know, a neurosurgeon. Giving up your job often means not just the death of your career, but the loss of your intellectual calling.

  8. Thank you so much for starting this blog. Although I am not yet a mother, I am in a committed relationship and have made the decision to relocate to another country to be with my partner.
    I hope to start a family one day and as a young working woman, I have had countless talks and discussions with my girlfriends about how some women bosses purposefully make it difficult for other women in the workplace. Perhaps they feel a sense of entitlement, as they have had a long hard climb up the career ladder and expect the same sacrifices from their women subordinates.
    But collectively this kind of behaviour is destructive and impedes other women breaking thru the glass ceiling. I just can't understand it...