Working girls: Can women have it all?

Will a true work/life balance ever be a reality for women? '35 Women Under 35' 2010 alumnus and founder of legal support firm Obelisk, Dana Denis-Smith, thinks there's still a long way to go.

by Dana Denis-Smith
Last Updated: 19 Sep 2012

There are few issues about the workplace that divide opinion as much as the professional women who seek to balance family and work but still advance their careers. Should mothers have their cake and eat it?

Looking around, I see few enduring obstacles that prevent the answer from being 'yes'. At least for the foreseeable. As the CEO of a fast-growing company in the legal sector, the mother of a toddler, and a wife, I have my hands full - but I do have the luxury of being able to control my time. I might not have enough of it, but that isn't gender-related, rather linked to the level of responsibility I chose to assume in my professional life by founding and running a business. Most employed mothers do not have this luxury. Instead, they are forced to choose between 'family' or 'work'.

Here's how the set-up currently works: there are two broad groups of mothers – stay-at-home mums and the mums in full-time work. The stay-at-home mums are equally busy with running their households and their children’s diaries, while the full-time working mums struggle to nurture a happy family whilst maintaining a separate professional identity.

But with advances in technology, there are plenty of means that could enable professional mothers to work smarter, so that they can remain engaged with the workplace without sacrificing family commitments or, indeed, the other way around. Women should no longer be faced with having to give up work, or compromise on family, but rather be helped to phase in and out of the workplace to fit the two neatly around each other. 

More often than not, professional mothers become stay-at-home mums having tried to work around their families already and eventually given up. For many, as one of my colleagues put it, is 'the classic compromise' – as her family grew, she tried to work part-time until she gave up. She strived to be valued 'without having to commit to more than I can realistically deliver' whilst being a mum to her three children. Unlike those mums who remain employed or those opting straight away to stay at home, this group of mothers have seen the full spectrum of the challenges a mother faces to make work and life form a harmonious relationship.

I can, however, suggest that instead of listening only to the high powered ladies who seek equality at the top of their professions we listen more to the professional mothers who stay at home but who are trying to return to work on a different work/life bargain. A CEO role in a FTSE 100 business is not at the top of a list of achievements for most mothers, but earning to support their family is.

Listening to their stories, what emerges is that we should be concerned about the glass door which prevents women from returning on equal footing after taking a maternal career break. Once through the glass door, we can then shift our focus on removing the glass ceiling.

Check out this year's 35 Under 35 List

Dana Denis-Smith is the CEO of Obelisk, a legal outsourcing business which provides flexible work for ex-City lawyers juggling a profession with parenthood.

Image: BigStockPhoto

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