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Sink or swim?

Annie Peate

26 September 2012

‘Having-it-all’. A phrase and aspiration once championed by working women everywhere has now morphed into a millstone around the necks of an entire generation. Stock images of women dressed in pinstriped skirt suits and shoulder pads, telephone balancing treacherously under one ear whilst hoovering and holding a crying baby to this day continue to spill from magazines, eagerly offering advice on how you too can have-it-all in just ten easy steps. We’ve even had paraded in front of us a roll call of women who actually claim to have managed to successfully achieve ‘it all’ - whatever that is. We feel like fraught and frazzled failures, endlessly searching for this seemingly mythical existence where we’re all CEOs with broods of contented, well-turned out children in orderly households. Worst of all, we feel as the Scandinavians with their relatively progressive feminist policies are laughing at us.

Christine Lagarde, Head of the IMF, has today come to the defence of overtired and overworked women everywhere by saying that those of us who pursue the career and the family at the same time were likely to run into difficulty somewhere along the way. As the eighth most powerful woman in the world, with two grown-up sons and, as if that wasn’t enough, having previously represented France in synchronised swimming, it’s difficult to understand why Lagarde is making statements such as these. For most she represents  the living, breathing and swimming embodiment of the ‘having-it-all’ lifestyle we’re all so desperately after. But Lagarde goes on to make the following point; that women can in fact have it all, just not all at once. Instead she calls for women to be patient, not to overstretch themselves and to accept that their pursuit will be littered with failures.

Lagarde is refreshingly honest without being pessimistic. And I for one like that. Furthermore with over one million women unemployed in the UK, 324,000 of which have been for over a year, and countless others forced to accept jobs for which they are over-skilled and underpaid, her comments are timely. For single women looking after children the reality is far gloomier, with the rising cost of childcare making it such that accepting employment opportunities doesn’t make good financial sense. In a survey conducted by Resolution Foundation and NetMums over 43% of 1610 women questioned said it was not financially worthwhile to work full-time. In the current labour market, and for women such as these, having anything is preferable to having nothing – never mind having it all.

These are the women really performing a balancing act. For them, ‘having-it-all’ must seem like a ridiculous notion. Addressing the issues and challenges facing these women should be a priority for government and policymakers, concentrating on finding solutions to help the million unemployed women of all ages and of differing demands into good quality, worthwhile employment opportunities. In her speech to the Liberal Democrat conference Women and Equalities Minister Jo Swinson MP rightly identified that it’s not just women ‘at the top’ who need supporting, but those ‘all across the economy’, promoting flexible working, hared parental leave and better quality part-time opportunities for both men and women. But will the Coalition follow-up on their promises? Only time will tell.

Now I must dash. I have a swimming lesson to get to…