Sunday 25 March 2018

Maeve Dineen: Working mothers still face battle to reach the boardroom

Maeve Dineen

In the hit TV series 'Mad Men', Betty Draper has everything a woman in the early 1960s could possibly want: a handsome high-earner husband, an attractive suburban house, two rambunctious kids, and a clatter of pleasant distractions -- horse-riding, children's birthday parties, coffee mornings. This woman knows how to wear a girdle and fix a Martini. She's shy, demure, and terribly pretty, she has embraced the life of stay-at-home bliss.

Yet something is wrong. Betty lies awake at night. She drinks during the day. A petulant furrow mars her lovely brow, and she's afflicted with uneasiness, mournfulness, disquiet.

She goes to see a psychiatrist to figure out what's wrong. He doesn't listen. He doesn't have to. Because despite "having it all" Betty isn't happy.

Fifty years on and the debate on what it means for women to " have it all" is more acute than ever. Last week, Marissa Mayer, an exceptionally talented and skilled engineer, who is efficient, ambitious and demanding, was made CEO of Yahoo! She's female, she's 37 -- but what's more, she's six months' pregnant.

The outpouring of commentary since her appointment has ranged from celebration to admonition. Very little of it focuses on the fact that she brings the number of women running Fortune 500 companies to just 20 or that Mayer is also almost 20 years younger than most CEOs of large companies. Instead, everyone is focusing on the fact that she is due to give birth to a baby boy in October and that she plans to only take three weeks' maternity leave and will work throughout that time.

"She must be absolutely brilliant," a male colleague proffered when I mentioned the news. I scoffed -- but he's right. Given a choice, most companies will not hire a pregnant woman.

Studies show that women encounter the worst discrimination around motherhood. One Stanford study gave participants two CVs for a management consultant. Both were for women and both were identical, except one listed membership in a Parent Teacher Association. Rated by participants, the woman with the child was 79pc less likely to be hired, 100pc less likely to be promoted and offered $11,000 less in salary.

Whether she likes it or not, Mayer is going to be watched closely. Her every work-life choice will be analysed and judged, whispered about and written about.

Mayer clearly believes she can juggle motherhood and a demanding CEO role.

However, Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the US State Department, recently stepped down from her post saying it was impossible to do both adequately without one or the other suffering.

Perhaps Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook chief operating officer, has the answer when she says the best career move a woman will make is the man she marries.

She advises women to find a supportive partner who is willing to share the work and to maintain their sense of ambition. Regardless of what side you take, all the clamour over Mayer's appointment does prove one thing. That a pregnant woman in business in 2012 is a compelling story, shows just how little progress women have made since Betty Draper's days.

Irish Independent

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