Women at the helm of every success story continue to find themselves caught up in the widespread phenomena that they can’t “have it all”. Despite a perfect exterior whether in politics, entertainment or financial services, cultural norms and societal pressures continue to lead women to believe they can’t have it all. But why?
In 2012, American public policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter turned heads when she wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. Fast forward, eight years to 2020 and the story is very much the same.
This year, YouGov surveyed both women and men with children under the age of 18 in their household, whether or not they thought it was possible for them ‘have it all’. The modern woman’s definition of ‘having it all’ marries the ability to rise to the top of their profession, without letting their World’s Best Mum crown slip.
The results present that, in comparison to 16 other countries, British women with children in their household were the least likely to think they could ‘have it all’, with just 41% generally thinking they can. The research also indicates that women without children also feel an overwhelming sense of pressure to ‘manage everything’, ranging from appearance to maintaining a social life as well as holding down a successful career.
There is no denying that women of today have a plethora of opportunities that were once forbidden for previous generations. For example, today more women than men are graduating from colleges and universities, more women than men attend medical school and law school, and more girls are playing sports than any time in recorded history. Yet why do women still feel as though they ‘can’t have it all’?
The stress of modern life increasingly impacts the health of young women; with studies suggesting that twice as many females nowadays are at risk of burnout compared to 30 years ago. It is believed societal pressures on women to maintain a I-have-my-life-together exterior play the largest part in this. Whereas increased burnout could be due to intense working conditions in female-dominated professions such as healthcare, coupled with a continued lack of equality in today’s workforce.
On our quest to dive deeper into this topic, we spoke to four successful businesswomen, Dr Amanda Potter, CEO of Zircon BeTalent; Alita Benson, HR Director at Kokoro Global; Anna Chenery, Founder of The Project Bench; and Zoe Parker, Head of HR at Everymind at Work. Each of these four women have excelled in their careers and have broken ‘the glass ceiling’; a metaphor used when referring to the barriers that prevent women from rising beyond a certain level in the career hierarchy. We were interested to find out if they too believe women can ‘have it all’.
Do You Think The Pressures Of Being a Woman Has Made it Harder For You To Get To Where You Are Today?
Alita: I have never felt my gender has created an issue for me in the workplace.
Anna: It was undoubtedly harder for me to achieve what I have compared to my male counterparts for a number of reasons. Although it is changing now, when I had children there was “still an assumption that you didn’t really push for a promotion or look to further your career if you were thinking of having children imminently and certainly not when you were pregnant”. This meant that women had to effectively ‘press pause’ on their careers whilst others ‘continued to climb the career ladder’.
Amanda: I feel being a woman hasn’t held me back. It is hard for both men and women to succeed in such a competitive work environment, every day you have to be at your best, you need to show up and deliver no matter the personal challenges or disadvantages. These could be due to financial constraints, family situation, health, gender, age, or ethnic origin. At the senior levels I most definitely interact in a “man’s world” and many of my executive coaching clients are men, however, I do not think about my gender when I show up at a client location to deliver work or a client pitch, I just think about doing the best work possible.
Zoe: I feel my career hasn’t been any different or harder as a woman but my work ethic has been such that I’ve always strived to do better. I’ve never felt as though I was in competition with men or needed to prove anything as a woman, it was more to prove it to myself. Although I’ve worked in many male-dominated scenarios, I’ve never felt as though my contribution was less valuable or I’ve had to try harder to prove myself as a woman.
Anna: I have worked in some very male-dominated environments. The women who did succeed and made it into leadership roles were typically alpha females but as opposed to demonstrating strong leadership and collaboration, we’re often encouraged to be more aggressive, controlling, and competitive. Feminine traits were seen as a weakness.
Amanda: My colleagues at Zircon BeTalent recently carried out research on ‘Women in the Boardroom’ and found that “many women tailored their behaviour to operate similarly to their male counterparts. We also found from our analysis of our BeTalent Strengths and Decision Styles questionnaires, that the differences between men and women at work lessen as they get older and increase through the ranks at work. Women start to operate more like men; they are drawn towards a man’s way of thinking, deciding and operating, they start to work and think like men in order to succeed. This is because we often hold subconscious beliefs and biases, for example, if you see an woman upset at work, the assumption could be that she is not coping, if a man cries he is applauded for being in touch with his feelings. The implicit messaging and feedback for women in business, means that they start to move away from operating and thinking like women, towards operating and thinking like men.
Do You Think You Have Had to Make Many Sacrifices (In Either Your Personal or Worklife) To Achieve Your Success?
Anna: I had to make some big family sacrifices, at times, to climb the career ladder and despite often outperforming my male counterparts, I was frequently challenged in work on whether I wanted progression enough because I also wanted the flexibility to work from home and/or at times that suited my family more. This led me to step away from a management role in favour of more flexible working which negatively impacted my position and voice at the time.
Amanda: I had to make sacrifices to juggle the responsibilities of running my own business and being a mother. As I ran my own business I came back from maternity after 3 months, and worked part time. I definitely lost time with my son that I wish I could have had, but owning a business, employing people and therefore feeling responsible for people’s lives, meant that I often put work before my personal choices. I also gave up a huge amount of personal time, completing a PhD in the evenings and weekends whilst running a business full time. I do not regret it. I am so extremely proud of what I and my team have achieved so far, and what we will continue to strive to achieve. I love Psychology, and realise how lucky I am to run a business with my best friend of 30 years, and keep bright talented people employed to do work that makes a difference in people’s lives, but I have most definitely made many personal sacrifices to get this point. Would I do it again if I had a chance? Yes most definitely.
Alita: There are choices that have to be made. But are they sacrifices?. It depends on whether you are happy with the choice or not. Before becoming a mother, my ‘choice’ included working hard and long but I enjoyed my work. Whereas, as a mother, my husband and I ‘chose’ that he would be the stay at home dad. This did mean that I consciously had to let go of the pressure that as the mother I should know all the school mums and be involved with the school stuff, as we had chosen that this would be the role of the dad in our house.
Zoe: As someone who does not have children has meant my personal life has suffered over the years. Work has always been my focus. Not having children has sometimes led to longer hours and weekend working, as there have been no immediate family distractions or set activities/deadlines to prevent me from doing so. I think it has been a strain on relationships at times and looking back my focus should have probably been more balanced between work and home/social life. I made other sacrifices that would have been no different if I were male, such as relocating across the country for a promotion, travelling abroad, commuting significant distances and changing roles to further my experience/career. My mental health has suffered at times over the years, where I’ve ignored the typical signs of potential burnout and ploughed on.
Undeniably, it could be argued that any successful businessperson, albeit male or female, must make sacrifices in order to achieve success. However, when speaking to our panel, it became clear that all of them had to make sacrifices in their personal lives based on pressures they faced due to their gender. As Amanda highlighted, “the burden of the family responsibilities still often falls to the woman, even if both the man and woman work full time. I hear the men in relationships ask their fully employed wives, what is happening with food, the children, etc., always assuming that the woman will take care of these areas in addition to work”.
Do You Believe That Women Can ‘Have It All’ In Today’s World?
The majority of our panel are optimistic that women can ‘have it all’ but acknowledge that this is not easy to achieve – as seen by the responses in question 2.
Amanda: I strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ but do need to plan their lives beautifully to achieve this. If you focus on your strengths and do what you love doing you will have the resilience to keep going and create the right balance.
Zoe: Life itself is very hard and takes planning, support, resilience etc. to make it work. Juggling children, running a home, supporting family and friends, whilst trying to work full time – I imagine to be a huge challenge. I believe that those women who are fortunate enough to benefit from having a coach or mentor may find huge value in this support, as I think women have a predisposition towards things like imposter syndrome, which can affect mental wellbeing in general. Having support mechanisms in place and building emotional resilience I think is vital to coping with these daily pressures.
Anna: Like everything else, it comes down to choices and what one defines as ‘success’. I believe that, no matter what, you’re in control because you always have a choice. For me ‘having it all’ means having some balance in my life, working how and when I want to work, and always encouraging other women, including my own daughter, to achieve whatever is important to them.
Alita: I believe success comes at a cost for everybody. I don’t think anyone, male or female, can ‘have it all’” and it is all down to individual choices and perceptions of success.
How to Protect Yourself From the Demands of Today’s World
You can see from our discussion that sacrifices, or choices have to be made when it comes to balancing work and family demands and too many women have been led to believe they are at fault if they are struggling with these pressures. Moreover, the limited social construct of what a woman needs in her life to feel whole (e.g. marriage and children) remains outdated. The accumulation of these pressures and expectations can have a serious negative effect on female mental health and wellbeing.
Coping with the demands of today’s world can be tough. If you ever feel like you are hanging on by a thread, or feel like you’re ‘failing’ – stop, breathe and remember who you are. Here are some suggestions of how you can handle the stress and pressure of society to reduce any negative effects on your mental health and wellbeing:
- Understand your brain and body’s limitations
- Be realistic and go easy on yourself
- Create and prioritise a to-do-list
- Keep a positive mindset
- Practice a healthy lifestyle and diet
- Promote a positive work-life balance
- Reframe negative thoughts
- Ask for help when needed
- Know your worth
Everymind is on a mission to be the number one provider for mental health support in the workplace. We offer training to equip your employees with the relevant learnings and key skills to be a source of support to their peers, whilst our app and webinars provide each employee tailored content for personalised assistance. As a partner of Everymind, you will be fully assisted by our dedicated team who aim to remove fragments in mental health systems in the workplace. Not only does this cut time, costs and resources, you will have a happier, healthier workforce. More information can be found here.