WANTING IT ALL - Cherie Booth has it all, doesn't she? - the fascinating and well-paid job, the successful partner, the four kids, the wardrobe ... You don't even need to meet her; you simply know she'll be incredibly impressive in person. She's not just

by DEBBIE SANDFORD, who formerly worked at McKinsey and RandomHouse
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Cherie Booth has it all, doesn't she? - the fascinating and well-paid job, the successful partner, the four kids, the wardrobe ... You don't even need to meet her; you simply know she'll be incredibly impressive in person. She's not just one half of a power couple; she's got the whole power family.

Looking back, that was who I wanted to be, although it was never an explicit goal. Not the PM's wife, of course, but a professional woman at the top of my field with an equally successful partner and a family.

Perhaps I'm kidding myself, but at the age of 33 and as MD of a business and with a high-flying lawyer for a husband, it all seemed there for the taking. We were the next generation, waiting in the wings; it could have been us next! A wolf pair, with a few cubs thrown in for good measure.

Climbing the greasy pole is never easy, but I soon discovered that doing it with children is like having your hands tied behind your back. In most fields now, women without children compete equally with men. But mothers ... well, I now look at Cherie Booth and ask: 'Just what is she giving up?'

If she were in a more generalist role she would have found it even harder; with in-depth expertise and experience you can add value far more quickly than a generalist would be able to. But the day-to-day tough calls are undeniably still there.

Women in high-profile positions are understandably unwilling to talk publicly about their personal lives. If men don't get asked, why should women? But privately they say they have a different attitude to mothering from many others. They don't get so involved with their children's schooling, for example - they just don't see it as their role to help with homework. They pay the best nannies and schools to do that instead. And, of course, just like any mother working full-time outside the home, they have little time for themselves; the gym goes out of the window along with half a dozen other once-treasured activities.

They see themselves as half of a partnership of equals, sharing responsibility for their private lives. One female parent in a power family told me that her partner had described the only difference between the two of them as 'you feel guilty'.

Most mothers I know feel guilty, so on one level this is not unusual. On quite another level, professional mums come in for so much stick that I marvel anybody wants the job at all. Why are we so quick to judge and criticise these women?

For example, an opinion poll published late last year showed that four-fifths of women resented people like Cherie Booth, dubbing them 'show mums' and believing that they succeed only because they have plenty of money. In another instance, when TV presenter Fiona Bruce returned to work soon after giving birth to her child, the Daily Mirror carried the headline 'Was new mum Fiona right to return to work after 16 days?'

Surely only she and her partner can be the judge of that, not Mirror readers. In such an environment, it's hardly surprising that there are few women at the top of business.

Meanwhile, men are not, by and large, made to feel guilty. But things are getting tougher for men; our 'be the best you can be' culture is raising expectations for fathers to spend more time with their families, help out more in the home and keep themselves in good nick - all traditionally female pursuits.

Yet the reality is that, while the pressure to do well at work may be higher, our expectations of men doing anything outside work are lower; for example, we didn't see much criticism of Tony Blair for returning to work so soon after Leo was born.

When I stopped working I felt in some small way ashamed. I was letting down the cause of womanhood and throwing away my education; I had an opportunity to smash the glass ceiling and by choosing not to I was somehow failing.

But, in reality, we need all kinds of role models for our lives, and of course we cannot live by someone else's standards.

So I wish we'd stop knocking those mothers who are succeeding at work, and support them instead. I think Cherie is amazing; I may have made choices that are different from hers, but I will defend to the last her right to make her own choices for her own family.

We need more mothers in high-profile positions, just as much as we need stay-at-home mums and dads. They give us a wide range of role models, making it easier for all the rest of us to choose from a broader array of options.

And perhaps, in time, our daughters and sons will be able to choose their own paths and parenting roles based less on gender than on individual inclination and ability.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

How COVID changes the world forever: A thought experiment

Silicon Valley ‘oracle’ Tim O’Reilly imagines how different sectors could emerge from the pandemic.

The CEO's guide to switching off

Too much hard work is counterproductive. Here four leaders share how they ease the pressure....

What Lego robots can teach us about motivating teams

People crave meaningful work, yet managers can so easily make it all seem futile.

What went wrong at Debenhams?

There are lessons in the high street store's sorry story.

How to find the right mentor or executive coach

One minute briefing: McDonald’s UK CEO Paul Pomroy.

What you don't want to copy from Silicon Valley

Workplace Evolution podcast: Twitter's former EMEA chief Bruce Daisley on Saturday emails, biased recruitment and...