Everyone has an opinion on working mums. Michelle Obama says that being 'mom-in-chief' is her most important job, Hillary Clinton reckons working mothers should stop whining and Cherie Blair is 'disappointed' by women who want to be ‘yummy mummies’. So, who's right?
Christine Armstong caught up with Nicola Rabson, partner at Linklaters’ Employment & Incentives department and mother of three children aged 10, eight and six, to find out whether women really can have it all. Rabson certainly doesn't make it sound easy. She describes herself as an 'outlier' and it's not surprising that she stands out from the pack. As a mother who has worked part-time for much the last decade and yet still made partner in ten years, she is certainly unusual. To get a sense of this achievement MT checks in with a friend at a competitor law firm who whistles. 'That woman must be amazing.'
Here's how she did it...
Christine Armstong: 'What’s the secret of your fast rise to partner?'
Nicola Rabson: '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 what I say will not be bright, clever, quick or commercial enough. I’m still working on that.
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.
Was it difficult to make the shift to part-time? Was the company receptive to the idea? 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.
If your daughter wanted to make the same choices, would you encourage her to give it a go?
I think we are going through a generational shift. In the generation before ours, women stayed at home and men worked and didn't do much at home. In my generation, the women still do the maternity leave and many of the men I work with have wives who stay at home but the men do more to help. The next generation of women will be able to have kids and be promoted to the top.
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 you family and everything else. At some point you just have to accept that there are things you can’t control and make it work for you.
Nicola Rabson is partner at Linklaters’ Employment & Incentives
Christine Armstrong is VP of research agency Penn Schoen Berland