UK: How does she manage?

UK: How does she manage? - How does she manage? Only 20% of Britain's managers are women and an even smaller percentage mothers, even though the skills they perfect at home are essential in the workplace. Shirley Conran looks at Superwoman 2000.

by SHIRLEY CONRAN.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How does she manage? Only 20% of Britain's managers are women and an even smaller percentage mothers, even though the skills they perfect at home are essential in the workplace. Shirley Conran looks at Superwoman 2000.

It's the second baby that wakes up Dad in more ways than one. Any father who has - literally - had to take over the reins while his wife was in hospital having her second baby, knows the sudden culture shock of family responsibility, so rightly called home management. As one such stand-in told me: 'I had no idea that running a family was a serious managerial job.'

As to the cost, a couple who can't afford to run a Rolls-Royce should ask themselves whether they can afford to run a baby. Naturally, the necessities of one family may be the luxuries of another, and grasshoppers may choose a holiday rather than a second pension or home insurance. Similarly, if you choose to have children, what you pay for childcare depends on your situation, disposition and income. A mother in management might pay £24,000 a year for a nanny and cleaner, but to afford that would have to earn £40,000 gross.

Sometimes there are voluntary helping hands: a neighbour, a granny or a younger family member, but voluntary help cannot be counted on. Similarly, running a family can be compared to running a voluntary workforce ranging in age from a few years old to about 80 years, but there is no thrust of common interest as there is in a voluntary committee and no means of discipline. You can't fire anyone for bad work, selfish unreliability or misconduct - you are stuck with them. If a family member has a grievance, the manager might get spinach spat in her face or be on the receiving end of an elderly temper tantrum that would not be tolerated in an office or factory. In a clash of wills, sulky teenagers may well point out that they didn't ask to be born, then develop instant catatonia. Another disciplinary problem is that today there is no set home hierarchy: one in five women earn more than their mates and a 10 year old may be the electronic king of the video and the computer, so it's no good threatening to tell his dad of misbehaviour. Family members may lie, cheat and steal, ignore views of others and try tempers until they snap. Interpersonal skills are stretched to the limit.

Is this good training for management? Of course the family manager quickly develops what traditionally were called female skills. Intuition - which basically is being observant - is the sum of an entire life's experience and observation, stored in the computer of the unconscious mind. It recalls and adds up behaviour patterns and their consequences, leading a woman to a fast conclusion she cannot instantly explain except by saying, 'I don't trust him. He's got eyes like great uncle Arthur who ran off with Granny's savings.' (She can probably justify her logic later, working it out backwards.)

A mother working outside her home has to work more efficiently at home and in the office; she quickly learns to conserve her energy, plan round her capacity and eliminate inessentials; she develops an ability to prioritise, while dealing with the crises of everyday life which are her norm; she learns to maximise time, and her first thought on reading 'Another MP in Sex Scandal' is not how salaciously fascinating but how do they find the time?

A mother in management develops negotiating skills based on empathy, sympathy and a light but firm approach (the aluminium fist in a velvet glove) that needs to be employed with the unskilled, unpaid, unwilling workforce that is creating all the work in the first place - the family. So perhaps working mothers are a lot more talented than they or their employers realise.

Nevertheless, although over 60% of British women return to work within 11 months of having a baby and 1.6 million with children under 16 work full-time, only 20% of managers are women and an even smaller percentage mothers. Why so few, I wonder?

If you can run a family, you can run a department. In fact many women find it easier to run a business. Marjorie Hurst, who started the Brook Street Employment Bureau, once told me glumly that she found a business easier to run than a home. Those who do both find there are plenty of job similarities at managerial level.

Every working mother has a breakfast meeting - in the most important part of the day - to check heads before sending everyone off to work. No matter what her paid job description, every working mother runs two departments and juggles two sets of priorities in her head, although often the job at home is a more complicated one than the day job. Even if the household tasks are shared, it is generally the woman partner who has responsibility for organising the three-ring circus of home-school-work, and this is far more exhausting than running a vacuum over a carpet. To run a family efficiently - let alone happily - requires the ability to do easily (including telephone talk) three things at once; the use of interpersonal skills plus patience, persuasion and the ability to explain things simply, as you teach small persons to tie a knot and slowly move through the development stages of a human being.

In the past 25 years, two popular household management guides have been published. Superwoman, which I wrote in 1975, was successful because of its dismissive attitude to housework and for its approach to household management that - while carefully disguised as cosy - taught efficiency, was businesslike and emphasised consumer awareness. It dealt with the non-fun side of family fun such as how to cut down on Christmas, and the cost of a pet or a car. The psychology included a stress survival course and in 1975 I had to explain to my publisher what stress was when he queried its inclusion. The contents list of Superwoman ran to four pages. Twenty-five years later, the new home management bible, Women Unlimited; the Directory for Life (Penguin) has a contents list of 14 pages that includes 'Downshifting, upshifting and trying to stay put'. It does not start with the cleaning section but with evaluation of skills, career counselling, writing a CV and finding a job or a head-hunter. One area concerns training, retraining, employment issues, family-friendly work options, technology and an A-Z of cyberspeak. The difference between these two home management books neatly illustrates the increase of female home decision making and implementation in the past 25 years. Once upon a time, Dad took the important decisions, especially financial ones. He also washed the car and mowed the lawn. Are women doing more now because dad is doing less, or is there more to do? Whatever the reason, Women Unlimited (now reprinting) proves perhaps better than a governmental inquiry that women are constantly exercising management skills in the home.

Should you prefer a governmental inquiry, in 1995 the learning methods branch of the Department of Employment published 'Unpaid Work in the Home and the Relationship to Paid Occupation and NVQs'. Key role A was the development and management of systems to meet routine and non-routine needs. A career option suggested to match this work was 'administration/management (for example, contracts administration)'. Although this research did not include interpersonal skills, it tried to establish whether experience outside the workplace would be useful in getting an NVQ as a step towards a particular career. The interesting thing about an NVQ is that if a returner qualifies for this bit of paper, it's an indirect way of getting him or her back to work.

'The employment service takes such skills into account as do some civil service procedures, but few private firms break down their entry forms to include such extra-workplace activity,' I was told by Neil Rankin, editor of Competency, a journal which researches the methods by which organisations recruit and select.

In a 1966 survey, skills listed by recruiting businesses included building relationships, networking, communication, influencing and facilitating - skills constantly used by conscientious mothers, as are other competencies noted in the survey such as planning and organising, flexibility/adaptability, developing others, resilience.

When I suggested that if industry wanted to use the potential of women it would stop viewing their abilities and skills in isolation, Rankin said: 'Most employers don't take into account the soft skills developed by mothers that might well be useful to industry and which could, if acknowledged, contribute not only a management skill area but also enable returners to get back into the workforce.' Certainly, the skills a woman has developed in the home are totally transferable to the workplace but they are not taken into account when a firm is filling a vacancy. If a woman is asked what she has been doing for the past five years and she says 'bringing up two children', the unspoken translation might well be 'she is rusty, her skills are outdated and she lacks self-confidence', rather than 'she has been developing her influencing skills'.

'This is a very controversial area,' Rankin continued. 'You're talking about soft skills discovered and developed in running a home. There is no hard research; it is considered too controversial even to raise as an issue. Employers in the private sector mainly look for hard skills.

Some might ask for decision-making skills but only as experience in a previous job, not all experience. Certainly such employers have the potential to do so but the problem is boxed-in thinking. There are really very few barriers to be taken down and that can easily be done - as soon as they are noticed.'

Stephanie Monk, human resources director of Granada Group, confirms this: 'Women contribute to a wider repertoire of management skills, and in the future the most successful companies will be those that most successfully milk these skills.'

Whether qualified by nature, nurture or forced labour, surely the ratio of males to females, let alone mothers, in management should be higher than 80:20 - the current male/female ratio.

Change might come from an unexpected direction. As much as 99% of all UK businesses employ fewer than 100 people and they employ over 50% of the UK workforce. 'In effect there is a network of interdependence,' says Joanna Foster of the National Work Life Forum. 'Large companies will be dependent through subcontract and supply chains on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).'

The number of self-employed women has doubled in a decade and they are now responsible for starting 40% of all businesses. They are beginning to create - for the life they wish to lead - a new workplace paradigm for the 21st century, one that incorporates flexible ways to work and allows time for better work/life balance.

Perhaps this is the back door through which family-friendly schemes may be introduced to the SME sector, where many small businesses feel, with justification, they cannot afford such practices. And perhaps this will be the route by which the managerial skills of mothers will eventually be recognised in the workplace.

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