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Can women have it all? Do men have it all? Or do none of us?

I’m increasingly coming around to the view that the only way to get ahead is to have a strong support network at home – yes, women are making great leaps forward BUT if I look around me at the women one layer up from in my career they generally have a husband at home.  They are free to go ahead and strive forward in their career because there is someone else there to do everything else – they can have a single, driven approach because they don’t have those household responsibilities.



It is an awful lot harder to try and be two equals both trying to have equally high flying careers because neither of you is getting the dry cleaning sorted, the washing done or the house cleaned and it means a level of distraction when compared to your peers who have that sort of infrastructure.



I should probably feel sorry for my husband that he, an alpha male, made the mistake of marrying an alpha female rather than a nice girl who would have spent her life telling him how great he was and creating a settled home.  Instead the poor man has to search for his own socks, do his share of the home making and be up in the night with small children too.



So if we crack the enigma that the only way to get to the top as a woman is to have a beta man behind the scenes then why aren’t more women doing that?  Why aren’t there more stay at home husbands, more men taking part time work to look after the children, more men in the playgrounds?



And that I think is the nub of it, that women have still not got themselves to a place where they are the alpha’s in a relationship and where men still have the idea that they have to be breadwinners deeply engrained.



Logic has nothing to do with it, emotion and evolution more so.  We need to be raising a generation of girls and boys to think that Mummy going out to work and Daddy staying at home is the norm or even that Mummy and Daddy going out to work but sharing the home tasks and childcare is the norm.  I remember reading about one Scandinavian country where school children were asking if men could be prime minster because there hadn’t been a male leader in their lifetime – we need to change the wiring of our society in a similar way if it is to change these underlying currents that are shaping society.  Not so that women take over but that them holding the role is seen as equally obvious.



But perhaps that isn’t the answer – perhaps that is going too far the other way from where we stand today?   Perhaps instead what we have to consider is that there might be an awful lot of men out there who are faced with no choice but to carry on working and climbing up the career ladder.  Perhaps there are men out there who want more time with their families, who want to slow down on the career, the stress, the time away.



Perhaps what we should be looking for is something new, a workplace where both parents can work less hours without stigma, a workplace where family first is the norm and not firm first.  A place where presenteeism is a thing of the past and delivering results is more important.



We have had a few Fridays recently when both of us have been not working – it has been wonderful, that little bit more time together as a family has a disproportionate benefit.  Yes job loss is scary, yes it puts additional pressure on the remaining worker but perhaps, for us, it might be the opportunity to consider what we want to do as a family and how we can make work work for us.


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31 comments to Can women have it all? Do men have it all? Or do none of us?

  • I love this debate – I think it’s so important and relevant to society at the moment.

    Basically, my opinion is no, we both can’t have it all. Not why there is the stupid workplace competition of getting in at 7, staying the latest, pulling the most hours for appearances sake (which is how it’s been at everywhere I’ve ever worked). Plus I feel that women are so hard-wired to feel their home responsibilities more than men. Is this wrong? Probably. But it’s how things are for me. I feel so much guilt at the thought of going out to work full time, whereas it’s expected of my husband. If the household chores get neglected then I feel it’s my fault (although we do share the chore of getting up in the middle of the night).

    It is pretty much impossible for both to have it all unless you have a solid support system at home, but conversely when I’m working I find it hard to stop and admit I’m not coping and ask for help with the household – cleaning and cooking etc. Childcare is easier to seek out.

    What we all need is an extra wife…

  • Great to read your take on this. But I think Alice has the perfect solution – an extra wife. I love it! When our first son was born my husband had every intention of taking 6 months off when I finished maternity leave to take over home duties. But sadly, it never worked out that way. When the time came, he just didn’t feel he could justify 6 months at home with a baby on his CV. Sad really, he would have made a fantastic wife 😉

    • My husband hasn’t even taken a full paternity leave yet… despite nursing me after Bigger was born…

      I worked with a Swedish chap recently and he had just returned after 6 months off – just incredible to hear a different take when time off is normal

  • I pretty much agree with Alice, especially about the extra wife – but knowing my luck she’d want to work full time! It took me a while to realize most of the pressure to be supermum that I felt was put there by myself, no one else.

    • That’s the trouble – why do both of us want to be successful, why can’t we have one of us being the cheerleader and the other the achiever?

      Trouble is that when it’s you putting the pressure on, it is hard to take it off

  • David Mackay

    What a great piece. It’s not often I read a balanced argument on this debate. Your take is spot on in my view. I think the main problem with imbalances between men and women is down to the fact that many men do not want to have a more balanced life, part at work, part at home / raising kids. Reasons for this are many, some genetic, some hard wired through experience e.g. Man is hunter, women stay at cave. This then feeds into employers/bosses. Whilst it’s (reluctantly) accepted that once women become parents, there’s a good chance they’ll ask for part time work. This of course going to limit the career, hence why there’s fewer women at the very top. A man who asks for part time would be viewed as not taking his career seriously. Yes, this happens to women too, but I think the effect on men’s careers is worse. Similarly, I think many women just don’t want the top jobs. To get to the top in any field requires 100% committment and (family) sacrifice. Lots of women I think just don’t want the sacrifice. It’s not a co-incidence that more men achieve great things AND mess up big time (early death, mental illness, substance abuse, prison, drugs…). Women are much more balanced, men more extreme. All generalisations of course, and there are many examples of the opposite. Susan Pinker is brilliant on this. So, no answer, it is what it is. I think ‘having it all’ has to be a personal thing for you, whether man or woman. Some want to be heroes at work, some want to be heroes at home, others a bit of both. My own view – raising children is the most important job of all. There’s no right way to do it, and at times it’s painfully dull. But when your children shine and they bring a huge smile to your face, you can stand tall in the knowledge that you are building the future.

    • David Mackay

      Let me clarify ‘many women don’t want top jobs’. My starting point is that just about everyone wants a ‘top job’. We all want to be successful, as the rewards are great – money, prestige, power, feeling valued/valuable… However, most of us don’t end up being very very successful. This is obvious by definition – success is relative. To get to the top in any field requires single minded determination and sacrifice of just about all else. If you look at the professions, more women than men have been entering and enjoying very successful (more than men I’d argue) careers up until mid-management level. Indeed, I think women are better at these types of job which require excellent client relationship skills. But still we don’t see women achieving 50:50 with men right at the top. Why? Because when it comes to the time to make a really strong push to get up to senior management, most people are in their late 20’s early 30’s. Co-incidentally, this is the time when professionals decide to further the human the race. The career break is one thing, but I think the stronger impetus comes from many women. They simply find it harder to sacrifice family life than men do. (Whether men have much of a choice is another question). This reminds me of a quote in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books about wanting to swap your life with someone very rich – if the fairy could waive the magic wand then you’d also have to accept all the bad stuff about that person e.g. failed marriages, never seeing the children…. you can’t just take the good bits.

      • But this is where I struggle – why have I been able to get so close to this, and to have moved ahead despite being in my child bearing years, is it that I’m an anomaly or just that I took a bit longer to get the message?

    • I agree that raising children is important but the balance between ambition and career for each half of a partnership is also an important dynamic – the hardest part for me is learning to balance motherhood with the person I was before, and how that plays out in our relationship, especially when the job market keeps throwing us curve balls and changing the dynamic around us

  • Great stuff, well done you for putting it all down. I came to the conclusion that you can indeed have it all, just not at the same time. Family first is a no brainer, shame so many firms don’t work that way. If we had more women in key roles, that would have more chance of changing in future.

  • Ah, my favourite, favourite subject…and I think both you and David Mackay have hit the nail on the head that a lot of it is about expectation.
    In a lot of ways, I’ve always maintained that feminism can only take us so far and paradoxically we also need more rights for men – the right, that is, to be seen to be doing traditional “women’s work” without it being viewed as somewhat of an anomaly. Until we get to more of a balance on both sides I don’t think we will ever really reach the nirvana for which we all strive!

    • Absolutely – until men have the same ability to work flexibly it won’t be properly accepted. I can see that for us as a family the two of us working less could be a huge thing, so much more time together and so much more family time BUT incredibly hard to do because of the assumption that part time = uncommitted

  • No, I don’t think we can have it all, maybe some type of blended balance if we are lucky or that second wife!

    I agree personal expectation is a major factor…and in an ideal world this would be where either mums or dads could stay home/be the breadwinner and not feel “outside the norm.” But then for me, I knew after having kids I wanted to go part-time, even if this meant financial/career sacrifice. Maybe if we were in different circumstances or I was in a different career this would have been a harder decision to make, though I suspect my “stay at cave” instincts would have kicked in.

    I completely agree that flexible working should be an option more readily open to both parents in the work-place but in order for this to happen a major shift of culture has to occur to show that it can work. I work flexibly for a small organisation where most of the staff work a “non-conventional” work week and it works fab but how to get a major corporate to buy-in to this mentality is another story. It requires taking the plunge, but I think many would agree it is a plunge worth taking, sure to have teething issues but with many long term benefits across the board.

    • Having been disappointed to see that, my supposedly enlightened employer has of part time work I am increasingly of the view that perhaps our generation isn’t going to get it – trouble is, how do we improve things for our children? How do we get around the male view that success is linked to certain factors and that drives the entire perception of success in corporate-ville?

  • Think that your penultimate para absolutely hits the nail on the head – and Scandinavia is way ahead on this. We have a very high flying Norwegian friend and he said in his firm it is embarrassing to be in the office after half five – a sign of poor organisation/productivity and lack of family commitment! Wow.

    Once kids are in the equation , what is best for the them surely has to be the first issue, we chose to bring them into the world, at least until they are 18, their security and wellbeing is our first responsibility however you look at it I think. It makes for a lot of sacrifice the way our culture is structured, but so much joy too.

    Housework robots – bring them on!!

  • This is such a brilliant piece. I have made the decision to reduce my working hours, so that I can support my husband and be with my children while they are little. We tried to both work hard but it ended up with too much stress at home as it was all falling apart. I do still do some work and when I’m having a busy work weekend and so is my husband, you can literally see the house collapsing around us. And then on Monday morning the school uniform isn’t dry, the fridge is empty and you can’t walk across the lounge for the mass of toys on the floor.
    So much to think about. So much that can and should change.
    Thank you for sharing x

    • I can so relate to the house falling apart thing – not only that but when we are too busy I can see the impact it has on the girls and I don’t want that but it is so hard to fight back against a corporate requirement to be there even if you aren’t busy

  • Ali

    I certainly couldn’t do what I do without the flexibility of having a part time nanny, and a husband who is mostly at home. But it still doesn’t stop me feeling guilty about not doing what I feel I’m ‘supposed’ to. A lot of it is trying to let go of my perfectionism. Ok – Mr Biscuit doesn’t necessarily clean the house exactly as I would. But its clean, so its OK.
    I work a 4 day week since having the little one, but the days I work are typically 12-14 hours so its not exactly part time.
    Not sure there is an ideal solution – but there are usually options.

  • Crystal Jigsaw

    I do reckon this is just part of our society as a whole, rather than it being an issue with upbringing. My husband is incredibly chauvanist even though I love him. It was the way he was brought up but most men in this area are the same – it’s countryside syndrome, women tied to the kitchen sing, baking, washing, cleaning, raising kids, whilst the menfolk bring home the bacon. It’ll never change in some parts. If I ever saw my husband with a duster in his hand, or the hoover, or anywhere near the oven, washing machine or peg bag, I’d probably assume he’d gone senile.

    CJ x

    • David Mackay

      Hi CJ
      I always laugh when I hear someone say their husband isn’t much use around the house and that it’s down to the way he was brought up. It’s ironic that a woman (almost certainly?) has brought him up, and then another woman complains about this.
      I think anyone who isn’t pulling their weight in a family is sowing the seeds of tension or worse. As you say, maybe they see it as normal that a woman tends the house and the man goes to work. I guess in the old days that probably did divide up the tasks 50:50? But if a woman is also working, then there has to be a rebalancing, otherwise it’s simply not fair. This has the potential to lead to resentment, which over 20 years can be like chinese water torture.
      I think if a woman finds herself in this situation and is unhappy about it she should take action. This should be:

      List all the activities/jobs required to maintain your lifestyle. This would include e.g. earning money, looking after children, cooking, cleaning, home maintenance…… the list never ends. You should then try and assign tasks to each other based on what you are good at / what you like or don’t mind doing. All very Scandanavian I know. Many women will say they have tried this and it doesn’t work as hubby simply believes his full time job represents 50% and so you wifey must pick up the balance. In this case I think you have to be brutal. If he gets home at 6pm and then sits on the sofa all night while you prepare dinner, put the kids to bed, sort the laundry, tidy up, wash the dishes…. your day doesn’t finish till 9pm I’m guessing. You need to point out to him that you are working a 12 hour day (at least) against his 8 hour day and then simply challenge and say – is this fair?

      My wife works part time and deals with the majority of the childcare. I work full time. A typical evening for us involves me preparing dinner and doing the laundry. She will be bathing the kids, doing homework etc. Both us roughly finish around the same time – 9pm. Interested to hear anyone’s comments who would like to have their husband do more but have tried and failed.

      • David – I need you to come around and have a chat to my husband…

        And I need to shake your mother by the hand because it is down to how women bring up their sons – about giving them the skills to do the home tasks and to respect them and see them as important, equally as important as going out to work or to recognise that they are jobs over and above paid work

        Trouble is that a lot of men don’t see that and the buck has to stop somewhere and it usually stops with the women of the household because genetically we are programmed to pick up the pieces

      • Great comment. I have been trying to explain this clearly ever since I went on maternity leave. It’s slightly more complicated, of course, as you’re not supposed to count time looking after the kids as work, are you 😉
        I quantify it as hours leisure time, rather than hours work. How many hours do you each get to spend selfishly each day/week? (And if you have pre-school children, showers count as leisure time…)

        • Totally agree – am intrigued when I read about Mums insisting on me time – for me I have me time when Mr is travelling in the evening if I don’t have work and if the girls go to bed, otherwise someone or something is calling on my time all the time

    • I agree – we need to educate the male half, my husband still expects someone else to pick up socks, cook food, stock the fridge and so on because it’s always been done for him. Yes he does jobs about the place but the fabric of food on table, clean clothes, beds and so on is down to me irrespective of how hard I am working

      Need to educate this generation of boys to cook, clean and iron as at least a first step

  • What a brilliant post. So interesting.
    I do think that having both people in high flying careers is miserable for most, requires to much sacrifice and that it works better with one person at home. And I agree that that one person should be man or woman, whoever’s temperament fits it better.
    I also think it will naturally more often be women just because of biology, but that doesn’t mean there should be expectations that way.
    food for thought – well done hannah!


  • The answer is obviously flexible working all round… but until flexible working is seen to be a general issue, rather than a female or “mum” issue, it’s never going to be high priority.
    I saw an interesting article (can’t remember where…) recently that suggested that the importance of green issues to the next generation of school leavers may sway the balance, as teleworking and more flexible options also fit with the green agenda. I don’t know whether that’s true, but I certainly think more people are reassessing their priorities in this recession.
    Trouble is often you go part-time (and reduce your childcare) only to end up with an even bigger chunk of the home duties and no more time with the kids. Let’s face it, if you’re giving up time at work just for more time doing housework, you may as well pay for a cleaner and have the extra cash…

    • Exactly – if flexible working is just seen as a womens thing then it is seen as another reason women aren’t trying hard enough and why we can’t compete when actually there are many men out there desperate to reduce hours and explore other working patterns (I’ve had this conversation with colleagues and several have said they wish they could but that ‘it wouldn’t be approved’ if they tried) – very sad if you think about it

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