Having it all

In The Telegraph on 31 May 2015, Cristina Odone wrote, “I want my daughter to know that she can never have it all”.

Much of what Cristina said about the importance of girls and women investing in personal relationships as well as in professional commitment I completely agreed with.  However, the phrase which The Telegraph chose as the headline made me deeply uncomfortable in its idea of limiting expectations for the next generation of women.

In 2009, as President of the Girls’ Schools Association, I chose to write, and talk, about how we could best prepare the girls of today for the challenges and opportunities of being the women of tomorrow.  I suggested we should recognise that if women wanted both a family and a high-powered career this still wasn’t easy.  We should be wary of misleading girls into thinking that, in these days of equal opportunity enshrined in legislation, the battles had all been fought and the playing field now level.  It seemed to me, following almost 30 years in education, more than half that time in girls’ schools with predominantly female staff, that those who chose to balance family responsibilities with professional responsibilities could still find this tough.  They needed strong support networks, a degree of resilience, and to guard against perfectionism and guilt when they felt they hadn’t got it completely right.

I suggested compromise can be a strength, not a weakness, and that women shouldn’t be too hard on themselves, or on other women, particularly those who had made different life choices from their own.  I said timing was important, and at different times in their lives women might want different things – they might find their priorities changed, and that was understandable.  But I didn’t ever say (though it was sometimes reported that I had!) that women couldn’t have or shouldn’t want both a satisfying personal life and professional fulfilment.

Cristina Odone felt in some ways betrayed that educated women like herself, in the 80s and 90s, were told by the media, teachers and their mothers, that “work, above all else, offered the route to independence, success and self-confidence”.  I was of the same generation.  I still feel professional independence and confidence are hugely important for women; I have known women trapped in unhappy, or even abusive, marriages who haven’t had the earning power or the self-belief to support themselves and their children and so find a way out.  In Cristina’s case, finding at 40 that she might have left it too late to have children came as a shock.  She wants professional women to be aware of what they may be sacrificing if they choose to leave it too late to have a family.

I see this.  I absolutely believe in the importance of the personal as well as the professional.  But if I’d been lucky enough to have a daughter, I’d tell her to be realistic.  I don’t think I’d tell her to lower her expectations.

Photo: Martin Burrett, #EducationFest


This post was originally published on @staffrm in 2015

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