Tag Archives: Shirley Conran

The phrase “having it all” rears its ugly head again

The phrase ‘having it all’,  the famous tagline coined by the original Superwoman  Shirley Conran,  has plagued us since 1975 which truthfully started all this nonsense. I had hoped it had disappeared for ever.   It conned women into believing that we could ‘have it all’  when it actually means ‘doing  it all’ or ‘managing it all’.  It has now reared its ugly head to probably do the same level of disservice to women everywhere, as it did first time round.

Another high-profile  writer has  caused a storm. Anne-Marie Slaughter was the  first woman director of policy planning at the State Department  and in ” a foreign-policy dream job that traces its origins back to George Kennan.” She has stepped down for family reasons which has precipitated a flow of unprecedented angst on behalf of ” women”.  In the Atlantic July/August “Women  still can’t have it all”   Ms Slaughter basically reiterates the  many truisms that most talent management specialists, as well as both women and men everywhere,  have been saying for years when dealing with the challenges of the 21st century workplace.

Important issues
There is no doubt that a highly visible woman publically targeting the key issues  both men and women face in their careers today is beneficial.   But sweeping, emotive, headline- grabbing generalisations from women of privilege do other women everywhere a disservice, not just in the upper echelons of  U.S. government administration. This headline is being picked up and syndicated globally to become a stand- alone #trending news item. 

What is “having it all” anyway? Should  Ms Slaughter’s headline become a defining slogan for all women?  I don’t think so. But sadly, it probably will be applied to all women,  all over the world, just as Conran’s did before her.

Out dated business models
Corporate business models are currently generally based on two factors:  a fully functional  nuclear family which in many societies is significantly reduced  and there being a distinct divide between  domestic (usually childcare) and revenue generating responsibilities, with one partner today tending to assume point roles on each side of that divide,  women focusing on childcare and men on revenue generating.  This model which exists to various degrees in different parts of the world is outmoded and impacts both men and women equally:

  •  Global economies are dealing with skill set shortages, declining birth rates and aging populations. We have essentially created a cultural conundrum. Economically we need women to have children.  We cannot support an aging population with an insufficient economically productive base. 60% of graduates are now female,  those skills are under utilised with developed economies filling key gaps with migrant men.
  • A presence  rather than result focused business culture in today’s hi-tech,  super- communication age is also out dated.  Organisations can be effectively managed without all personnel being in the same place, 24/7/52
  • A macho work culture where ” pulling all-nighters“, working 15 hour days and not taking time off at weekends and vacations is glorified and seen as a “good thing”,  rather than acknowledged as increasing the incidence of risk for error and being potentially damaging to both physical and mental health.
  • Men and women are both refusing to relocate for family reasons and have been for some time,  as any search specialist will tell you: spousal professions, housing costs,  education, single parent status and child and elder care are the 5 reasons most often quoted to me.

Extreme commuting
The extreme weekly commute from Trenton to Washington Ms Slaughter was undertaking seemed to be at the root of the issues  and anxiety she was facing. She makes no mention of why her husband and family didn’t move with her.  Many families relocate with children aged 12 and 14.  I would imagine the job of her husband  Andrew Moravcsik ,   who “supports ” her career as a Princeton Professor was a criterion. Perhaps it wasn’t feasible that he move to Washington. Perhaps he didn’t want to.  But an increasing number of men are re-locating to support their wives career progression.

Nor do we know what emergencies caused her to rush home  mid-week and why her husband was unable to handle them.  As Conran famously quipped  “you don’t need  a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist

Children –  a corporate inconvenience
Fathers in the workplace tend to be viewed more highly,  not just  above women, but also above men without children. So although we hear about the “Daddy Factor” where men are perceived positively for family involvement, most say that if this manifests itself in a substantial time commitment, then that perception would rapidly shift to become career suicide.  For our businesses to survive and to maximise the potential of both men and women in the work place, we cannot continue to relegate child care to the level of corporate inconvenience.

Any re-location specialist would have suggested that this arrangement whether for a man or woman, was potentially fraught with difficulties for all  involved, without significant workplace concessions.  Astonishingly,  this seemed not to be part of any sign-on package.  Although men who work away from their homes and families putting in punishing hours, might appear to do so more willingly, they are not unscathed,  reporting significant damage to their relationships and health and are afterwards filled with regret.

Wanting too much
Ms Slaughter’s regular job is as University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University where she  says  ” I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book”

By most people’s standards male or female, she already had it all. The suggestion  that she didn’t, creates a benchmark for inadequacy.  Did she simply want too much and have unrealistic expectations?

But above all  letting the mantras and experience of  famous,  well placed, individual women, whether Conran or Slaughter become global catch phrases for all women is high risk.  This is damaging to the men and women who would, and do, make  entirely different choices. They will inevitably be tarred as flight risks by that same stereotyping brush when applying for senior positions.

What does ” having it all ”  mean for you?

Superwoman: an out moded concept

Mushrooms, breasts and dentists
Yes there’s a link! Like many professional women in the mid 70s, I got caught up in the Shirley Conran philosophy that smart women could indeed succeed in a career, cope with motherhood and still have time to do throw a dinner party together, while of course, looking gorgeous 24/7. Moving on from Betty Frieden who asked the disillusioned middle class American housewife in the ’60s ” Is this all? “, Conran’s best-selling book Superwoman published in 1975, possibly turned out to be as misleading to women as any anti-feminist tome.

Having it all
Her mantra of ” life is too short to stuff a mushroom ” became the catchphrase for women of the era. We were thrilled to have approval to pursue our careers and were finally given permission to take short cuts on domestic activities. Women no longer had to choose between career and a family – we just had to manage them.

There were two core concepts which were only lightly queried: the first was that real work and the greater sources of satisfaction for women, lay outside the home. This of course created an instant rift with the stay at home mothers and genuine domestic goddesses who felt devalued. The second was that it accepted domestic responsibility and child care as primarily a woman’s role. So this turned out not to be so much “having it all” as “doing it all“, a notion which lingered to our detriment. It perpetuated the myth that the way forward was by increasing our household efficiency not sharing it with our partners.

So women either did all the work themselves, or if they could afford help, they masterminded domestic operations with military precision. Lives became complex balancing acts and a juggling of priorities with those ever decreasing commodities – time and energy, topped off with a good dose of guilt and angst, so eloquently described by Marion Chapsal in her post “What is masculinity?” Any role played by many of our partners was described as “helping”.

I spent the summer with a large number of young women aged 23 – 30. I found some trending topics had changed, but surprisingly much hadn’t. Our conversations were both reassuringly and depressingly familiar. Today, 60% of graduates are women and they make up over 50% of the workforce. I expected natural changes associated with that demographic shift.

Are their choices any clearer?
The answer is not really. Although equal pay is now officially in place, there are still gender disparities in income levels. Women are still absent from senior roles and all research shows that they are still responsible for a higher percentage of household chores, although happily that gap is closing over the generations.

Similar pressures
These women lamented the lack of senior women role models within their organisations , just as we did. Surprisingly, they were unsympathetic to women with children being afforded special treatment in the workplace (flexible hours, remote working, priority at holiday periods, reduced demands for overtime, travel and weekend working) and felt this flexibility should be available to all. They even felt that single, childless people were expected to compensate for what they perceived to be lifestyle choices of co-workers with families. They are appalled by the decisions made by senior managers in the hierarchy (male,older, work centric) who they believe sacrifice family life for high salaries. They want to own property, choose furniture and have children. They talk about wedding cakes. They are still under pressure to look good, plagued by conflicting messages, both direct and subliminal of becoming a size zero, but with Barbie breasts and hair. They are very aware that slim, attractive women earn more than those who are not. Many of their parents are divorced and they want financial security and independence.

So do they still want it all?


I decided to ask! Research from a very basic mini survey I sent out suggests:

  •  74% of respondents indicated that professional success was  “significant but not to the exclusion of other goals
  •  42.3% of respondents indicated that having children and raising a family was “significant but not to the exclusion of other goals”
  •  57.5% of respondents indicated that a future partner would be fully involved in childcare

Having it all – but not doing it all
So it seems that these women do want to have both professional satisfaction and success and to combine it with raising a family – just as we did. They want to be financially independent even within a couple and expect their partners to be fully engaged in household management and child care – those are two key variants. It would seem that they do indeed want to have it all, but with a major difference. They don’t want to do it all. This is a huge generational shift and eminently sensible. Research indicates that both Gen Y men and women are either more family or dual centric than their parent’s generation and their partners will be willing to be more highly engaged.

Ironically, part of women negotiating and achieving greater success in the workplace could be closely tied to the balance they strike within their own homes and relationships, so that the father’s professional role will no longer be considered more important than the mother’s within the family unit. Will this mean that if men become more family centric that they too will make demands on the system for change? I think it will.

As Conran also quipped, possibly older, wiser and more exhausted, 29 years later in 2004you don’t need a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist”

Perhaps they will even have time to stuff a mushroom or two. Do you?

© All rights reserved