Sunday, 25 January 2015

What does success mean to you?

There was a fascinating article this week by Alison Wolf in the Guardian. She argued that feminists today are too obsessed with climbing ladders, achieving high salaries and entering the circles of power and influence. Quotas on company boards, all female shortlists for parliament and achieving professional success. While this may make highly educated, elite women more visible, it does nothing to improve representation for women of all backgrounds and classes. Rather than the traditional image of the woman behind the man, we now have the team of cleaners and nannies behind the elite women; breaking glass ceilings while leaving the rest behind. As Wolf puts it,
"Class trumps gender. And inequality among women is rising much faster than inequality among men."

So has “sisterhood” really died in the pursuit of elite aspirations? It is clearly true that "different women have very different lives, and interests". But haven't they always? I suppose for me, what really rang true in Wolf's article, is the lack of value and respect we, as a society, give to the women who are caring, nurturing, cleaning up, making cups of tea and all the other things that keep our young, our old, our sick, our homes, our communities able to survive. But then, maybe I have it wrong, maybe it is not our society, maybe as Wolf puts it, it is the elite & the middle classes and the feminists among them.

As a teenager at a girls' grammar school, we were taught the value of education, of professional success, of climbing higher. Breaking into well-paid male-dominated fields: medicine, dentistry, law, classics, politics. This, of course, was empowering in it's way but did nothing to help us respect the contribution of people, mainly women, working behind the scenes. The carers, the nurses, the nursery workers, the kitchen assistants, the stay at home mums. We assumed a lack of ambition, drive or intelligence. How misguided, how arrogant to assume that a person's intrinsic value is something to do with the letters after their name, be it MBA, PhD or MP.

I duly took my exams, obtained my certificates, strove for distinctions. Then after several years in various part-time or temporary roles, I decided to train as a nurse. The shock. Surely I would rather be a doctor? What a waste. The idea that learning anatomy & physiology, pharmacology, medicine administration, core patient assessment skills and technical treatment skills would not be challenging. I can honestly say that in my stint as a paediatric nurse, it was a constant assault on my analytical skills, my mathematical skills, my problem solving skills, my interpersonal skills and also my emotional and physical resilience. But of course, this is a role traditionally carried out by women and it involves caring. That thing that doesn't really matter. Can you put it on your CV? Achieved an A* in compassion and patience?

When I became a mum, at least while I was working, I felt part of the game, I could maintain my self respect. When I didn't return to work after baby number 2, a result of acute and ongoing sleep deprivation and also the desire to spend time with my young children, again it seemed odd. A betrayal of everything I had been prepared for. A waste. As though being someone who spends time caring for children is somehow beneath what educated women, feminists no less, should aim for.

And financial recognition does matter. For all those poorly paid workers, receiving the minimum wage for hard physical graft, emotional labour and long hours does make you feel less valued. Being a stay at home parent, entirely financially dependent on your partner or benefits, does make you feel insecure and powerless. In October, Lib Dem activist, Elizabeth Jewkes, suggested paying parents at home a minimal wage of £40/week,
This would give mothers and fathers at home a value, and not just people with children but others with caring responsibilities. Many people only do this for a couple of years and then go back to work, but it’s a really important thing to do.’ (reported in the Daily Mail).
While women in highly paid professional roles are perceived as successful, clearly this does not mean they have escaped sexism at home. Crucially, when Wolf argues that the class divide trumps the gender divide, she does not mention the domestic attitudes of many middle-class men. After all, amongst the metropolitan elite she refers to, it is the women who choose the nanny, employ the cleaner, buy the ready meals because these tasks remain within the female domain, right? When the kids are sick, she is still the one who has to take the day off work. You can get out the kitchen, but it's still your responsibility.

So in reality, the interests of women are not that different because, even if you can afford to outsource your ironing and reach a level of professional success, society's expections of female realms of responsibility remain the same. While we continue to judge each other and fail to value the contribution that women make in all spheres of society, we are doing ourselves an injustice. I would argue that we all need to have the opportunity to follow our passions and talents, whatever those may be, while appreciating the passions and talents of the people who are facilitating and supporting us.


  1. Where does this leave the success or otherwise of men? Are men victims of these prescribed gender roles, or victors of them?

  2. I think men are victims of the same narrow view of what success is and what is valued within our society. By focusing on climbing to the top of elite patriarchal institutions we are failing to challenge that view and failing to value caring professions and work within the home, carried out in the majority by women but of course also by men.

  3. Ultimately - however much opportunity has opened up - women are the ones physically having babies and still the ones that take that responsibility over the home in most cases, as you say. It's really complex. As individuals, I think ultimately it of course has to be about choice, while acknowledging that only some of us have that choice. Also about finding what works for you in your own household - since I started a business my husband has (finally!) understood how I've wanted him to do more at home - things like filling in forms for nursery or hanging the washing out WITHOUT me mentioning it. It feels more equal and it feels good, but it's also completely necessary as I can't run a business and still do all I did before.
    I've no idea what the answer is, only that I think now is a difficult time for women because, while there is more opportunity, there's still huge expectation from society AND ourselves to be everything (and more) that our mothers were. Sometimes I feel this is what makes us all feel a bit fucked.

  4. Hey Steph, I totally agree. Many Dads are very involved in looking after their kids etc but often there is a hurdle to get over, an assumption from ourselves and them about about responsibilities and what constitutes "proper work" - outside versus inside the household. I've just started my own business too and the necessary involvement of both parents can really help change dynamics but not automatically so.

    Sometimes, it's also a control issue. I like being in charge of the kids' stuff and often I just need to let go, an easier thing to do when I was working shifts and just couldn't obsess about everything as much!

    Mainly I think re-evaluating "success" is important for men and women just in terms of letting ourselves enjoy what we are doing and contributing at the time, rather then judging ourselves and others against imagined standards and always falling short. Good luck with your business/work-life balance!