Pisa

I think all this ‘leaning in’ and ‘leaning out’ these days could explain why my knees appear to be giving way. It’s like some kind of life-choice hokey cokey where career aspirations fly about instead of limbs.

My mother has lead a busy life, mostly dedicated to unpaid or barely paid public service, with some years of full employment and a period of self-employment thrown in. Her attitude to women and leadership is generally ‘Well, women have more sense than to want to do that’, which I’ve long held with. But I’m aware I may be doing women a bit of a disservice thinking that way.

I do start to feel a bit guilty when I hear about how girls need more role models who are going for the top. Is the reason I’m not interested because I’ve been conditioned not to be? Or is it, as I tell myself, my pragmatic tendency? Or my plain lack of ability to do anything high earning, high flying and people-leading?

Ultimately, I do think where my daughter chooses to go in terms of career heights is still ruled by societal expectations (yeah, go let yourself off the hook); that whatever I do there are forces mostly out of my control that have a say in this.

So what can I do to encourage her to reach for more when I’m not willing or able to go for that multinational CEO role myself? I don’t want her turning round to me and saying ‘Well if you think it’s so important for there to be female leaders, what are you doing being a lowly editor?’ Though I’d have hopes of at least being a less lowly editor by the time she’s capable of asking me that.

It’s an honest question and I’d love to hear any suggested answers.

She’s only five now, so currently any gender expectation are in something of a state of flux. One day she’ll be telling me she wants to be an engineer and ‘fix the green aeroplane’ (it’s at the RAF Museum in Hendon), the next she’ll be telling me she can’t go into space because she’s a girl, and then she’ll be reminding me that there’s no such thing as girls’ and boys’ toys, but I’m not yet convinced that she really believes it.

The problem at this age is that children are rule-based. They don’t really understand choice and agency, but they do understand rules. Hence doing something not girly when you’re a girl isn’t ‘weird’ or ‘atypical’ as it might be seen later. It’s breaking the rules. Those rules that tell you how to be a girl or a boy. I only recently realised this and remembered how kids at school used to say to me ‘Ummmm!’ (because for some reason all kids made the noise ‘ummm!’ when another child had transgressed – do they still do that?) anyway, it was ‘Ummmm! That’s a boys’ toy!’, although unlike other transgressions, as far as I know no one ever told on me or threatened to do so.

I have to say, it never bothered me and I was quite pleased to put them right on the matter of what things were for girls or boys – or rather, weren’t. It’s just as well, as it happened a lot.

In this way, my childhood was possibly the height of what little active involvement I might claim in feminism. I’ve gone on to have a modest but happy career, I did, I suppose, negotiate returning to work at three days a week when returning after my daughter was born (I say negotiate, but basically I asked and they said ‘yes’ in which I’m aware I’m fortunate), which I felt was striking some sort of blow for the sisterhood, as the more people ask and do it, the more normal it becomes.

Personally, I made a conscious decision to step back from the plate a bit while I have young kids, and just have a career I could manage with family, rather than a stellar one with aspirations to the c-suite by 30 or anything like that. But in the next at-least-30-at-this-rate years of my career where does that leave me? Do I follow the apparent female ‘rule’ of ‘Not Being The Boss’? Do I have to be promoted to the level of my incompetence or else let the side down? Oh, hokey cokey, indeed.

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