To my great sadness Gaby Hinsliff, political editor of the Observer wrote this week of her resignation, due to the impossibility of balancing family and ‘the big job’. Just like the miserable ending to Allison Pearson’s novel ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’, we learn that, in short, she just can’t do it anymore.
She’s not alone. Adele Blakeborough MBE, who was until recently Chief Executive of CAN (Community Action Network), a pioneering social enterprise that supports community development, has downsized her working life to spend more time with her children. Whilst she feels it’s time for her girls to see more of their mum, she told me "things at the top have to change. I think even the biggest jobs can be done by CEOs who want to be home for the school holidays." As the mother of three young children and a CEO for the last 18 years, I do not want to know that it is not possible to be a good mother and at the top of your game in the workplace; I’m ambitious to be a good mother just as I am to fulfil myself through my career, and the two are not mutually exclusive.
My lot are 9, 11 and 13. For the last 14 years I have juggled breast feeding and board meetings, playgroup and public speaking, school events and strategic planning. Not easy but like all life experience, you can make it work for you. I have learnt to be ruthless in prioritisation, planning is second nature, I make every moment count, and having children gives you an exemplary ability to empathise with the human condition, a good thing in any leader.
My kids also give me a direct stake in the planet’s future, which makes my commitment to social enterprise and the environment all the more urgent. I have no intention of handing them a planet in a worse mess than the one handed to me, frankly it’s the least I can do. Sophi Tranchell MBE, CEO of Divine Chocolate agrees, she told me: "When you have children you become increasingly concerned about the world they will grow up in. In that context working for a social enterprise makes sense as you make a living whilst helping to create the world you would like your children to live in. Added to this social enterprise should and often does offer genuinely family friendly working.”
One of the many things I do is sit on the Government’s Women’s Enterprise Taskforce. For the last three years we have focused on women’s businesses and how to support more women who want to go it alone. Whilst the Government, encouraged by the Taskforce, has brought in multiple measures like loans and targeted business advice the truth is many women in the UK are still struggling to see the wood for the trees. What is holding us back? I would argue role models, clear political leadership and money. Women need to know that it’s possible and even preferable to be a working mother. I love being treated all day as an individual, worthy of respect for my substantial experience and education, not just as someone’s mum, carer or wife. I think my enhanced self esteem actually makes me a better mother.
Politicians need to be careful, women vote and they notice when their lives are taken for granted. For all these years I have paid tax on my salary and then tax for our nannies. The current tax allowances are prohibitively complex for small organisations like mine and the actual benefits to the individuals are negligible. Enough with this voucher nonsense, why can’t I simply claim the money I spend on childcare and nurseries against tax? I truly believe that if men had to afford childcare in order to work, then this would have been sorted out years ago.
The world of social enterprise provides some inspiring role models. As CEO of Social Enterprise London, an organisation with over 1800 members that encourages and supports the development of the social enterprise movement in the capital, I know a little about what inspires people to enter the world of ethical trading. Many of those people are woman, in fact when I look around my board I see June O’Sullivan CEO of London Early Years Foundation, providing top notch childcare to some of societies most vulnerable young people, Kathryn Smith, Board Director of the Co-Op Group and Sophi Tranchell, mentioned above; all working mothers, all at the top of their game. In fact nearly 50% of our members at SEL are women – a great many of whom are mothers, all of whom are meeting society’s most pressing challenges through social enterprise.
So we have the role models, but there's work the social enterprise movement can do in providing the political leadership. We can lead the way in employment strategies that support those with caring responsibilities, like flexible working hours, job shares and the promotion of part time work. Nowhere is this being achieved better than at Women Like Us, a social enterprise which recruits women returning to work after a career break into part-times roles at every professional level. Co founder, Karen Mattison tells us “what we are really about is helping women not to trade their skills in return for flexibility. If you have reached a certain level, you shouldn’t have to trade down.” I agree, nuts to that. We have worked hard to get where we are and demanding more support from our employers should come long before giving up.
'So what about the recession' I hear you ask? Surely all of this is of diminished importance compared to the business of getting everyone back to work. Well no frankly; those of us who have chosen to produce the next generation of tax payers have a right to work as well. I think the Observer as an employer should hang its head in shame. Gaby Hinsliff was outstanding at her job and if she felt that she couldn’t go on holiday with her family without risking dropping everything to return because a Minister once again wants to grandstand, then something is wrong in the state of Denmark, and it’s not Gaby’s commitment to coverage or childcare that whiffs.
I could moan about the schools that assume you have nothing better to do than drop everything because they have rescheduled sports day with 48 hours notice thus clashing with a crucial meeting at the Cabinet Office, or the fact that Brownies, Scouts, Drama School, Art Club, Tennis, Rugby, Football, Judo and Swimming all email me alone even though they have been equipped with the e-mail addresses of both my husband and myself. I could roll my eyes at the male dominated system of evening drinks, dinners and events where so much of the real business is done. But I won’t; partly because this isn’t entirely a gender argument, I’m well aware that male carers find it extremely tough to balance home and work responsibilities; but mainly because I love my job and my kids and I chose this life and can imagine no other. I want the same for my daughter and all girls who choose the North Face; it’s a harder climb but the view from the summit is second to none.