How can women have it all?

The time management tips in I Know How She Does It aren't the answer for women trying to juggle corporate jobs and kids, says Christine Armstrong.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 05 Oct 2015

Laura Vanderkam has collected and studied 133 weekly time logs - which she calls mosaics - of high-earning women ($100,000/£64,000 per year) with at least one child under 18 living at home. I'd qualify and have spent the last two years interviewing Power Mums for MT. So I've chosen to invest my Italian holiday with three kids under six devouring her analysis. She would be proud of my ability to combine family fun and productive work: my husband thinks I'm bloody annoying.

Her thesis is that working mums are full of it, loving nothing more than a self-pitying moan as celebrated wittily in Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It. We perpetuate the myth that we have no time, not enough sleep and claim we work far more hours than we actually do. It is perfectly possible, in her view to have it all: work a 60-hour week and have time to see our kids, sleep, have fun, have sex, go to the gym and do weird things like scrapbooking.

This thesis feels very American. Not a single woman I've ever interviewed has cited her workload in weekly hours or used it as a badge of honour the way she suggests. Some are or have been very tired: Sukhi Kaler talks about the dark days of having very small children. Some struggle with practical tasks: Nina Bhatia battles to find people to help her teenage girls with their homework. But self-deluded whinge-bags? Mmm. Not what I see.

There is great wisdom here for women who have control over their own time as she does. If you're an entrepreneur (Emma Bridgewater) , a journalist (Zoe Williams) or outside of a hierarchy, her advice is golden. The middle of the week is Thursday lunchtime. Housework fills the time you give it: stop picking up the toys that'll be thrown out again tomorrow and read your book. Plan things you want to do and use your weekends well rather than muddling through meaninglessly. Invest in the volume of childcare you actually need. Working part time is often just a licence to work flexitime with a high financial penalty attached (a point Nicola Rabson made before going back to full-time).

But what this highly practical analysis lacks is an emotional dimension. What many of the senior women in corporate environments I talk to are really grappling with is social judgement and stress. For Vanderkam to work a 10-hour day, chunked up to suit her priorities, on things she defines as important is one thing. It is a different proposition to a woman in a corporate culture where the first three hours might be booked for a training session she considers utter BS, another hour is wasted getting approval to attend a conference, just before someone else commits to deliver a report by 9am the next day even though no one asked for it so soon. At which point she gets a capitalised email from accounts saying the team is not meeting their financial goals and then the graduate trainee confides that their granny died. All within a 'perfectly manageable' day, which her colleagues compensate for by staying much later than she can and generating more income until midnight.

The core issue is not being able to control how her time is spent, rather than her squandering it trying to achieve email inbox zero. Then there is the social judgement from both sides. At work, the comments filter through. 'She's great ... a bit part time,' goes the light office banter of a full-timer who regularly leaves at 5.30pm and works later at home and, my favourite, 'We can't promote her, she has kids and we need someone who will travel.' 'She' already travels weekly for work. Meanwhile there is no escaping that you're not part of the mum gang at the school gate as they head off in their bright Lycra for a morning run and coffee.

While the impact of stress bubbles to the surface in the book, she never quite confronts it. She cites the prevalence of long working hours and less sleep without making the link. I have long noticed how many of the high-powered women I interview talk about waking up at 3am, their minds troubled by work, children, planning before they fall asleep again hours later only to be woken from a deep sleep by their alarm (Emma Codd).

The point is that I know how Vanderkam does it and I know how I do it. I'm still not sure why some of the women I know who work in really hard-nosed, macho, corporate cultures do it. But if we seriously want more female CEOs and board members we'll need to address more than just time management. There's much more to be said but my allocated time slot is up and I'm needed in the pool for a game of Shark Club. Apparently I'm the shark.

I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time by Laura Vanderkam is published by Portfolio Penguin at £9.99

Christine Armstrong is co-founder of Jericho Chambers and owner of Villas4Kids. Follow her on Twitter: @HannisArmstrong

Want to debate the issues that affect women in business today with Christine? Join us on 19 November at Inspiring Women, London. Get a 35% discount if you book before 8 September. Quote code: IW35

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