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Myth of an equal playing field:Space for uninterrupted thought

Updated: Aug 9, 2019

A recent article by the Guardian highlighted that the progression of female artists has often been “limited by the expectations and duties of home and care”. This progress limitation is unfortunately not just true of female creative thinkers but mothers hoping to progress up the corporate ladder.

I would have loved to have spent all my time on progression but unfortunately I’m a woman, with children. Life is weighed down by expectation and surrounded by responsibility for others. In the workplace I’m continuously asked to fix myself, lean in a bit further whilst also searching for the mythical beast called ‘balance’.

Due to my supposed superior parental instinct and innate caring bias I not only generally shoulder most of the physical household responsibilities but am also bear the more overwhelming mental burden of bringing up children. As Darcy Lockman notes in her book All the Rage “when motherhood hit, egalitarian values went out the window” for couples. At work I carry the backpack around of this unequal societal burden while also spending my time fixing, balancing and rebalancing myself due to the myth of an equal playing field.

This is because when women agreed to join the corporate working world 50+ years ago we also acknowledged that to progress we would need to change, thereby starting the intrinsic myth that that women just need fixing. At the same time the mythical beast of balance had been created and we were increasingly being told that if we don’t have it we had somehow failed. No wonder so many women just simply leave the corporate world, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

In my own industry, energy, 88% of UK energy companies have no female executive directors according to Powerful Women as of 2018. Additionally USAToday noted in July 2019 that 87.5% of CEO replacements over 2018 were men. The numbers don’t lie – despite being in the workplace for more than 50 years women have made very little impact in rising to the first division.

In the UK in 2018 Gender Pay Gap reporting indicates that while women are generally entering the corporate world in equal numbers to men they soon go missing as the pay scale increases. While there recognized reasons why this is happening in terms of bias in promotion in addition to the seemingly impossible task of work life balance, there is also a more obvious reason that is not discussed.

To progress up the corporate ladder colleagues need to get more strategic and to get more strategic you need time for uninterrupted thoughts.

Bearing in mind the societal backpack of selfless motherhood that we carry around, combined with a need to fight for progress at almost every stage, it is no wonder that in the very small shavings of time we give ourselves women often just want to zombie out on Netflix, rather than strategise our next step up the corporate ladder.

The idea of needing time for unstructured creative thinking goes all the way back to Virginia Wolf in 1929, who noted that women need a "room of their own". For Ms Wolf this represented the concept of financial independence, privacy and physical, as well as mental space. While women in the corporate world are now generally able to own a physical space, often completely financially independent of a man, mothers still often lack the physical and mental space for unstructured creative thinking which is where true innovation and leadership lives. We very often start the day exhausted from having already undertaken the homestead shift in the morning and then again in the evening. While at work we sit all day with others emotional and physical needs playing in the periphery of our minds and then wonder why we don’t have time to get better at playing the progress game.

To solve this conundrum women need to get better at being selfish, both at home and in the workplace.

A move to being more selfish happened to me around three years ago when I found myself overburdened, constantly time challenged and heading towards exhaustion. I was known as the person who would get things done, and as I give most things 110% I was at the point where sleep had started to become an optional extra. This has led me to getting ‘real’ about my time and value, as my teenage son would say. I began working on my vision and values to allow me to get clarity on who I am, what I stand for and what I am willing to compromise on. This has allowed me to make better choices to optimize my time both at work and at home.

At work I’ve become a ninja at job crafting to maximize my time towards impactful tasks and actions. I’ve also decided to no longer to feel grateful for being allowed into the corporate world. When my mother entered the workplace 50 years ago there were so few opportunities to progress that often she accepted any task, however menial and administrative, as part of her role in the hope she would get noticed. While things have greatly improved since then, women continue to have an underlying fear that if asked to do something our default should be ‘yes’, because there may not be a second chance. I’ve decided not to listen to that assumption and now have an automatic assumption of no to non-promotable work.

How else can women find the time for valuable unstructured creative thinking at work if we are always in the service of others?

I’ve also learnt that I need to create physical space and time at home. Take for example the advocacy work I do as part of this blog. It’s been a steep learning experience creating everything from scratch from my website and twitter presence through to my thought leadership. In order to undertake this, I’ve needed long stretches of uninterrupted time. To create that time and space my fiancée and I have worked hard to create a very equal household in which everyone, including the kids, pitches in to clean, cook and most importantly share the mental load. Since being divorced I’ve discovered that my ex-husband is far more capable than expected. Apparently, he can now order school uniform, book holidays and take my children to after school activities all without my magical organisational hand. Whilst I’m not advocating getting divorced as a first option, you do have the right to me-time exactly as your partner has the right to ask for time for be MAMIL on a Saturday morning.

To create time and space women need to understand that ‘strategic incompetence’ is not a valid defence for an unequal allocation of the parenting load.

Now, when I feel things are getting out of balance I get selfish quite quickly. Society has created the feminine myth of selflessness, but this myth leaves no place for self-care. Consequently, educated successful women somehow wake up after giving birth back in the 1950’s, no matter their previous pre-conceived notions of equal parenting. This is not to say we should neglect our families as one senior female indicated to me last year when I asked her how she had progressed. Instead I actively demand time for myself within the family setting and expect my partner to do the same, but not at my expense. This means that my partner and I both negotiate going to evening and weekend events, equally take whole days for ourselves and there is no expectation that the household chores fall on my shoulders, even if he has had a busy week at work. We both signed up to create this new bonus family and it is contract of equal responsibility.

As a result I no longer feel I am constrained “by the expectations and duties of home and care”. I’m also no longer willing to accept that there is only one way to get to and stay in the first division. The selfless nineteenth century housewife stereotype, who is also a dazzling outlier at work, is no longer valid. I am a modern working mother who takes up space and time, both at home and at work, and I am no longer looking for the mythical beast called ‘balance’, as she never existed in the first place.

If you enjoyed this post please check out the rest of my blog here, including my post on the three cogs needed to ensure female progress and the importance of ground up allyship to really ensuring systemic cultural change.

All opinions are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.


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