Meet Britain's Power Mums

Combining a stellar career with raising children is tough, but it can be done. Superheroes? Control freaks? Sometimes both. MT talks to three mothers - and a dad - who wouldn't have it any other way.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Inspiring Women 2013

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It was in 1977 that MT first wrote about female managers, when we discovered Felicity Green, the Mirror Group's director of publicity, who confided: 'I think the obstacles facing women are so enormous that it takes a superhuman effort for them to get to the same level as men.'

That was 36 years ago. How much has changed since then? Do you still need to be superwoman to get to the top, particularly if you are a mother?

MT has long championed the cause of women in the workplace. We've written extensively about work/life balance and continue to publish our annual '35 Women Under 35' list, which highlights high-flyers across business. Many are new mothers or soon to have children.

Many women still find their big jobs lonely places and have consciously learnt tactics to manage in a world in which they are outnumbered.

One power mother joked that she has learnt never to 'take on a field of willies', by which she means there are usually better ways to get your viewpoint across than take on a room of men directly.

The power parents say they are doing well. While many of the mothers have wrestled with their decisions, they remain convinced that they have made the right choice.

They know they are not hard-wired to stay at home full-time.

How hard will it be for them to continue with their upward career trajectory five or 10 years down the line? Here, we speak to the mothers (and a father) who have done it.


SARA BENNISON

BARCLAYS

 

Bennison, 45, is marketing communications director for Barclays retail and has four children (three girls and a boy aged 13, 11, 10 and six respectively). She also manages a team of 60 people. She gets up at 5.30am to check emails before getting the children up and dressed and making two packed lunches. She mentally packages her time into 10-minute slots throughout the day. Her husband runs a business from home, as well as helping to look after the children.


How do you get it all done?

 

I don't draw a line between home and work. I multitask. If you are late for a meeting, I'm doing the Ocado order. I have both agendas running at the same time, constantly thinking about everything that is going on. If I don't do something instantly, it doesn't get done - that's why I am an email fanatic.

Last weekend, we had second cousins staying and they unloaded the dishwasher, and I was thinking, this is the 10 minutes I've allocated for this, and I honestly didn't know what to do with myself. We have a nanny who cooks and has dinner on the table when I get home - I'm like an old-fashioned dad. We have supper around the table as a family, which has made a really big difference.

Does it ever go wrong?

 

If anything goes wrong on the childcare front that is really, really stressful. But the times I get most miserable are about silly things, like if I send them to school in the wrong clothes or forget something small - that's what will reduce me to tears. The big stuff you just manage.

The thing that makes me most stressed, because my time is so valuable, is if someone doesn't respect that or wastes it or is inefficient. I get really emotional and angry because they are taking me away from my children.

How do other people see you?

 

At work I think people find it a bit exhausting. I'm not sure I'm a terribly good role model. Younger women wonder if you need to work that hard. Other mums at Barclays are supportive in small but meaningful ways: there is a definite bond between us and we all root for each other. Someone said to me that you have two options as a working mum - stressed by working or depressed by staying at home...

Maybe there is some truth in it. I don't think staying at home is easier, I think for me it would have been harder. And part-time, there is a real difficulty with four days in particular: you get paid 20% less to do the same job and you rule yourself out of the fast lane because you are considered to be not committed. It's remarkably tricky.

What do you do for yourself?

 

I was thinking about what I did before the madness started, and I enjoyed writing. So I've started writing a children's book in the moments when my kids are at rugby matches and having haircuts. In two months, I've written 25,000 words of a children's novel that I am reading to them. I really enjoy it.

What advice would you give your daughters?

 

I recommend they think about professional qualifications - something flexible. My daughter wants to be a doctor and I think that would have been great for me. The big thing no one tells you when you are looking for jobs is that you need to think about what kind of a person you are and what motivates you.

If, like me, you need people around you and validation and progression and measurable achievements, admit that and live accordingly. It's not about skills - it's about what motivates you. No one ever talks about these things.

So... surviving or thriving?

 

Big picture? Thriving. Some days, though, just surviving. But you do feel achievement when it goes right.


 

NICOLA RABSON

LINKLATERS

 


Rabson, 38, works in Linklaters' employment and incentives department and has three children aged 10, eight and six. As a mother who has worked part-time for much of the past decade and yet still made partner, she is certainly unusual. Her husband is a surgeon and is a big support at home, especially when it comes to the cooking. The couple also employ a nanny.

What's the secret of your fast rise to partner?

 

I won the clients and earned the money.

What impact do you think being a woman and a mother has had on your career?

 

On some level it helped. I work in employment, dealing with a lot of HR directors - often the HR director is the only woman on the board, so that helps me to connect with my clients. However, sometimes I struggle because I'm quite feminine: large groups of men can be difficult - more than one or two and I feel vulnerable. I worry that what I say will not be bright, clever, quick or commercial enough.

Does a four-day week work?

 

I want to be a normal mum, not a holiday mum. For me, it's the tough and mundane bits that make you a mum, like wiping up sick in the middle of the night. After my first baby, I went back four days a week. It was really tough, I felt I was being tested.

There was a lot of wariness about telling clients I wasn't working a full week. But after a while I realised that even though I am seen as part-time I am actually flexitime. I'm not there on a Friday but I am working on a Saturday night when others are out having fun.

What has being a working mum taught you?

 

I had to learn that no one is superhuman. I went totally barking at one point, even taking on the treasurer role for one of my boy's footie clubs.

I seriously needed advice. I also recently had major back surgery that rendered me temporarily immobile. I guess that's the price you pay for working so hard! But the surgery has helped me to resolve things that have previously troubled me. Before the operation, there were times when I wondered if it was worth it.

Being unable to move made me realise that I am neither a natural mother nor a natural lawyer but both, and therefore incredibly blessed.

Do we need to do more to promote professional women?

 

I have come full circle on quotas. I was very anti them, I thought they were tokenistic and that I wouldn't want a board position on that basis. But I've come around to them. I think it is the only way things will change.

We are all attracted to our own likeness: if you go to a party you are most likely to talk to someone the same age, gender and class as you. This is part of the reason there are many successful female lawyers who are not being made partners and we need to do more to help women get ahead.

What advice do you have for women who want to get to the top?

 

Be yourself. Be honest, clear and direct about what you want. You can't control your career and your family and everything else. At some point, you just have to accept that, and make it work for you.


 

AMANDA MACKENZIE

AVIVA

 


Mackenzie, 49, combines her role as chief marketing and communications officer at Aviva with a number of other high-profile positions; she is on the board of Mothercare and of the National Youth Orchestra, and is also president of the Marketing Society. She is married, with a 16-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter at university. Her husband retired a year ago: he was vice chairman of advertising agency Leo Burnett London.

How do you make all these roles work with your family life?

 

My top tip is that you need a strong infrastructure and stability.

I always say that I married well. My husband is 10 years older than me and very comfortable in own skin. He has always been really supportive.

I sometimes see younger women who seem to be competing with their partners and that worries me. And you have to have focus. We didn't get distracted by moving or doing up houses or anything else. When my kids were little it was about work and home and that was it.

What doesn't work?

 

When I look back, I realise that I made a mistake by taking a job in Geneva when the kids were nine and 11. It meant spending my working week away and everything became significantly harder. I was never mentally at work in the way I should have been and nor was I properly engaged at home.

I didn't think through the consequences sufficiently. It just didn't work, my children were too young, I was always in the wrong place. It also gets harder in some ways as they get older.

The minute they become teenagers their needs become different. They need to be treated like adults within a framework, and if they are in the mood to talk you have to drop everything and listen. But that is what you must do, it is what love is about.

What has it been like combining the jobs you have had with children?

 

In the early years it could be hard, there were days I went to work after not a minute of sleep and still had to twinkle. But your kids also help you. Children are incredibly wise. There have been times when I have been utterly exhausted and I have dumped my bags on the stairs and cried with frustration and exhaustion and the kids have hugged me and told me they were proud of me.

What advice would you give other women seeking to combine family and a senior role?

 

If I was talking to a thirtysomething now, I would say, make sure that you don't get stuck in a functional ghetto. People need to actively sponsor and encourage women to get responsibility for P&L and general management experience. I walked past that too easily. There should have been a moment when the kids were at school when I got myself some broader experience.

My view is also that it's better to have kids sooner rather than later. Society has talked itself into doing as much as you can before having kids late in your 30s. I'd do it 10 years earlier. There is an energy and tenacity of youth that gets you back to work.

And then, by your late 30s, your kids are at school, it's a lot easier and you can then accelerate your career.

How does it feel being a very senior woman in business?

 

It can be hard.

You don't belong at the school gate or with the chaps, and you go through life in a slightly lonely place. Other mums can see me as a bit remote.

I used to joke that people would accuse me of stealing children because they didn't know who I was. I had to learn it was OK to sometimes say it is tough. At work, men often have more confidence and women often have a greater need to be liked, and that is a fatal combination.

I still struggle with confidence, I wish I had as much 10 years ago as I do now.

Big groups of men can be difficult. I joke with my husband that I shouldn't take on a big group of men as what you want to be a discussion can quickly turn into a confrontation.

In that case, I've learnt it is usually better to go round one by one and discuss the issues to persuade them. I once broke all the rules when, in a meeting, all the men were raising objections to something I was proposing.

The chairman asked how I felt and I shouted with tears: 'I don't know why I fucking bother.' My anger showed how committed I was to the plan. It changed the dynamic - it showed my determination, not weakness.

We had a better discussion afterwards and it got agreed.

Thriving or surviving?

 

I have survived and now I am thriving. Being happy is all that really matters, and you have to know that you are choosing to do it the way you are. You remember that you could sell up and move to the Hebrides, so if you haven't, you are choosing to do it the way that's the best for you.


 

PETER FITTON

DISNEY MEDIA+

 


Fitton, 45, is senior vice president of Disney Media+, Disney's integrated sales and publicity group for EMEA. He has 106 people in his team spread across the region and does a short trip an average of two out of every three weeks. He met his wife, Caroline, at work. She also works full-time in a similar field and they have three children aged seven, four and six months. Fitton tries to do the school run at least once a week and says he manages when he has a fair wind behind him.

Tell me about your day

 

I get up at 6am or a little after - my wife stays in bed a bit longer, as she gets up more often in the night. It's a nice time of the day, all of us wiping sleep out of our eyes. I leave anything from 8.30am onwards, depending on the diary.

I like to get home for 6.30pm, because the kids go to bed at 7.30pm. We do bath and bedtime before getting some time to ourselves. My wife cooks and we chat. I finish stuff at home later if I need to but I am very wary of firing off chains of emails late at night that others have to deal with.

Does it feel hard to leave work at six?

 

I don't want to say that I feel guilty about leaving on time, as we work for a company that is all about family. We encourage people to think about their work/life balance; it's not an environment where you feel guilt. It's difficult if there is something that really has to be done now. If it does have to be done, then I will stay. And I never want to let people down.

Do you feel in control?

 

I feel quite in control and comfortable. I am lucky that I have a boss who is clear about what he wants me to achieve, and he too will leave at a good time to see his son and then work later. I know where I am and who I am.

I don't have to be work Peter and home Peter and that takes a lot of stress out of it. Thinking about what needs to be done during the week for all the kids is a big job. That's what Caroline does. I could do a lot more. Caroline does all the planning of the family.

When is it hard?

 

My wife recently went to San Francisco for five days. The kids thought it was funny because they don't normally think I am in charge of anything. It was hard to manage all three of them. One would be in the bath and the older one in the shower and the baby crying and I didn't know which way to head.

I did notice while my wife was away people would ask how I was, and if I'd like to come for a meal. People took pity on me, but I can cook. No one does that for Caroline when I am away.

What have you learned?

 

You can't plan it. I used to drop my son at nursery three days a week so I had to stop agreeing to meetings before 9.30 on those days because, short of dragging him out of bed and force-feeding him Rice Krispies, I couldn't be sure I could get there.

You have to go with the flow. It's a cliche but they are only little once. If you miss out on this bit...

Surviving or thriving?

 

Very much thriving.

 

For more in the Power Mums series, click here.

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