Making it work: The high-flying women who prove that you can juggle motherhood and a career
– Abby Wynne
By Fiona McPhilips
Imagine a "female Paradise on earth", where women succeed alongside men, where women have equal access to the most senior positions and where gender segregation is a thing of the past. That Paradise is right here, right now, according to Alison Wolf, author of The XX Factor: How Working Women Are Creating a New Society – but only if you are a high earner.
About 15-20pc of women in developed countries fall into this group, which combines higher education, good incomes and prestigious occupations.
However, in order to facilitate the success of these women, there has been an increased need for lower-paid jobs in the areas of childminding, cleaning and caring. It is the other 80pc of women that fill these roles, and for them, argues Wolf, not a lot has changed in the last 40 years.
Wolf doesn't explore the financial freedom that comes from having a job, nor does she seem that interested in the middle-income earners. Instead, she concentrates on the similar lifestyles of elite professional men and women and how much they have diverged from the lifestyles of everyone else.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg does not share Wolf's optimism towards women at the top. In her book, Lean In, and her much-lauded TED Talk, 'Why we have too few women leaders', Sandberg discusses the fact that women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. Only 13pc of those in parliament throughout the world are women, while only 15pc of board members are female (in Ireland this is a shocking 9pc). Even in the non-profit world, an area traditionally associated with women, only 20pc of those at the top are women.
Orla O'Connor, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI), says that companies need to take seriously the fact that they have an imbalance of women at senior level. This may well be forced upon them as the European Commission has proposed legislation with the aim of attaining a 40pc representation of women in non-executive positions on the boards of publicly listed companies.
O'Connor says that childcare is a huge issue for working mothers. "Lots of women say that they thought the most difficult period would be paying for the crèche, but actually it's when children hit school age, and trying to manage the school hours, the holidays and mid-term breaks with working life."
So what factors and supports allow some mothers to continue their careers while others have to compromise or give up entirely?
Sheryl Sandberg's advice to women is threefold; firstly, she discusses how women tend to underestimate their abilities, and urges women to 'sit at the table' with their male counterparts. Next, she stresses that a woman needs to make her partner a real partner when it comes to sharing childcare and household chores. Finally, Sandberg says that you shouldn't 'leave before you leave'. This refers to the fact that women can lose focus on their careers as soon as they become pregnant, or even when they are thinking about having a baby.
Joanna Donnelly attributes her success to a flexible employer and a supportive partner. Joanna and her husband, Harm Luijkx, are both meteorologists with Met Éireann and have three children.
"As a public service company, we are lucky in that we have a lot of the benefits of statutory things like parental leave, work sharing, time sharing and flexitime," says Joanna. "All of those things really add to a good work-life balance."
In addition, Joanna and Harm work on the same roster and organise their shifts so that one parent is at home most of the time. "We get our rosters a month in advance and I look and see where our shifts clash. I'll take parental leave where I can on those days."
Joanna has a degree in maths and met Harm while she was doing her professional training with the British Met office. Within a few years, they were married with a child. "I always knew I'd never stop working," says Joanna.
Joanna was able to use both her parental leave and Harm's to take an additional year off after her third child was born. "While I was on maternity leave, I was perfectly happy. During the second year, when Harm was going off to do my job, I found that hard." For Joanna, her career is far more than a means to an end. "I would do my job for free – it's a hobby."
Abby Wynne has a similar passion for her work. "I can't ever see myself stopping work. I'm not planning on retiring, and if I won the lottery I would still continue to do what I do because it's what drives me."
Abby works as a psychotherapist at the Ranelagh Holistic Centre, a business that she owns. Abby already had a degree in zoology, a Master's degree in marine biology and a career in science and multimedia when she returned to college to study for a degree in psychotherapy. At that stage, she had a full-time job, two children and was pregnant with her third.
Abby's husband, Ian, also the holder of a Master's degree, has stayed at home with the children since their second was born. "There's no way I'd have been able to do it without Ian at home," says Abby. "Between all the work I had to do and the kids starting school, you want to have a parent at home."
Now with four children, Abby and Ian feel validated by the the choices they have made. "We live with the philosophy that you don't save up for the two weeks of the year when you go on holiday, because you want your life now to be fulfiling."
Dorothy Kelly, a senior manager at Google, works full-time, as does her husband, Eoin. Their two young sons are at crèche and after-school daycare and Eoin picks them up every evening so that Dorothy can stay on at work. "It makes a huge difference to my working day not to have that panic at the end of the day," she says.
Dorothy's experience of employer flexibility has been positive, and she says it can often depend on whether the manager is a parent or not. "If they have children themselves then generally they know the score and are pretty flexible."
As a manager, Dorothy has seen no evidence that working mothers are not as committed to their jobs as anyone else.
"I think the days of people thinking that mothers are not as strong contributors in the workplace are over," she says. "People tend to come back from maternity leave with gusto."
However, she still thinks that maternity leave can hurt a woman's career. "I did feel that I would have been promoted more quickly if I hadn't taken time off."
Dorothy feels that parents should have the option of sharing maternity/paternity leave. "I wholeheartedly believe we should do the Scandinavian model, where those months can be shared between the parents," she says. "Myself and Eoin are both parents and I'm never the default if the kids are sick – we share it equally and it should be the same with maternity leave."
Paternity leave is something that the NWCI is advocating. "The fact that we don't have father's leave in Ireland sends out a very clear message as to who should be the primary carer," says Orla O'Connor. The NWCI is also seeking a publicly subsidised model of childcare and the right to request flexible working conditions.
We may not have a female Paradise in Ireland but with the right supports, we can have an equal share of what's on offer.