Sara has four children (three girls and a boy aged 13, 11, 10 and six), a full-time job, a two and half hour daily commute from Putney to Canary Wharf and a team of 60 people to manage. She gets up at 5.30am to get ahead of her emails, before getting the kids up and dressed, making two packed lunches and doing her daughter’s hair. She mentally packages her time into ten minute slots throughout the day. She exudes competence and order.
Christine Armstong: 'How do you get it all done?'
Sara Bennison: 'I don’t draw a line between home and work. I multitask. If you’re 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 ten minutes I’ve allocated for this' and I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself! You become addicted it, you wonder what you would do if it stopped.
What systems do you need in place to make it work?
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.
How difficult is it to juggle being a breadwinner and a mother?
I am finding it harder as they get older. They are cute when they are small and they need feeding and cuddling. The nannies they had were infinitely more patient than me. Now I have to respond to their schedules. It requires time to be around and hang out and that’s the hardest thing and some of the issues they are asking about – serious stuff like cyber bullying and self-harming – are really tough. Kids need you much more in their teens but other people are less aware of the pressures.
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 which 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 your rule yourself out of the fast lane because you are considered to be not committed. It’s remarkably tricky.
There are definitely people who look at you in a strange way. We are in the privileged world of private schools because I am earning the right for the children to go there. I don’t want to be lectured by gymbag-toting mums with nannies who neither stay at home nor look after their kids.
Most women are really nice but there are some that are tricky. The worst was when my eldest daughter got into a school and another mother called to ask how. She was astounded because, as she put it, ‘you work’."
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 and get a real feel a satisfaction for doing something fun.
Should government or employers do more to help?
I think we have things about right as good intentions can lead to discrimination. On quotas, we shouldn’t need them. But then you look at the boards and wonder why the women aren’t there. Sometimes headhunters call and I say ‘It doesn’t seem the right role for me’ and then I realise they only rang me because they needed a woman on the list.
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. It could have been more flexible and not based in London. Then we wouldn’t have been locked into the crazy London school system.
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.
Occasionally, we do the mental maths of selling the house and not doing the private schools and it can be very enticing. But then you think about all you would miss. I like being where it’s at in terms of the buzz. I wouldn’t know how to quantify what I had achieved if it wasn’t tangible. Maybe some people need external validation. And maybe that is OK.
Sara Bennison is marketing communications director of Barclays UK Retail Bank.
Christine Armstrong is VP of research agency Penn Schoen Berland.