I’m With Sheryl – Women, How Often Do You Ask?

This is one of my most personal posts to date. Please feel free to share your thoughts on it at the end – I love to hear what you think.

I’m reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’ at the moment. It was on my to do list but then a newsletter reader in the United States contacted me to say ‘She’s saying all the things you’ve been saying for years, you’ll love her‘. Of course, I was hooked and so far so good.

Sheryl is something of a pragmatist, as am I. Her aim is to spark some debate and get women thinking about how they can make change within the existing limitations and then take action to change them from a position of power.

One of her propositions is that most key positions in the workforce are held by men, that it doesn’t occur to them that women might need certain accommodations and something about us stops us from speaking up and asking. That ‘something about us’ is years of conditioning and the world of work being constructed to suit men; it reminded of an incident in my past when I fell right into that trap.

Pregnant womanMotherhood & Career

I was pregnant with my first child when I was interviewed for a place on a post graduate course at my local University. In fact, I was 8 months pregnant and applying for selection for a 2 year course which didn’t start for another 11 months.

My interviewers, two men, were friendly enough and acknowledged early on in the interview that I had considerable experience in my field (social work) and should have no trouble managing the course, except…

As one of the interviewers went on to tell me that they had had a woman with a child the previous year and she couldn’t manage and had to leave, I couldn’t but help notice that the walls were covered with pictures of his wife and young children. I made an assumption that his wife was home looking after said children (subsequently proved correct). My first tremors of motherhood guilt began to kick in.

My eyes filled with tears as I heard my interviewer say:

How do you know that you can manage with a child? Have you thought seriously about this? The other woman thought she could too but then we wasted a place by offering it to her when it could have gone to someone more deserving

He had tapped into my worst nightmare. I was a first time Mum and maybe I was about to be a bad Mum and here was this man telling me as much. Suddenly the photos on his wall seemed to be making a much stronger point. If you’ve ever been pregnant you’ll know that emotions are often on the surface especially in late pregnancy. For a moment I was devastated. I thought I would have to give up any idea of a career and apply when I had finished raising my family by which time my experience would probably be invalid.

Fortunately my instinct for survival kicked in and I assured him that of course, I had thought about it and had made plenty of arrangements. I cringe now as I hear how pleading I was. I managed to convince them and I was offered a place.

Complain and Create Change

Once out of that environment I began to come back to myself. I seethed with anger. How dare he do that to me and assume that all women were the same, that I couldn’t cope? BUT it never once occurred to me to ask how the University might accommodate my needs. I was furious but pragmatic enough to wait until I had my place secured before sending in a complaint.

The University apologised and by the time I began my course that particular interviewer had moved on (he went on to have an illustrious career). But he had a lasting impact. I felt I was lucky to be there, grateful even. I never demurred, even when I was given placements miles away from home which caused me huge difficulty. I didn’t even say anything when other students on the course asked for closer to home placements simply because their car was dodgy! I asked them for nothing, determined to prove that I could do it. The first night I came home and our child had been put to bed by my husband I howled and howled.

Would I do the same now? Of course not, and legislation ensures that no one would be crass enough to ask those questions so blatantly. But the prejudice behind them remains. I have been on interview panels where once the door has closed on the applicant the subject of her age and of being likely to want babies has been raised, by both genders. Many of those men who grew up in the era I have just described are now at the top of their tree, making the decisions which affect us. Legislation is almost the easy part; changing attitudes is much harder. When you hear the phrase ‘latch key kids’ do you think of an absent father? Probably not…

However, when we cannot change that without we can change that within. We can start with ourselves and manage our own feelings. As women we need to stop being apologetic about asking for change. And we women who have influence and authority need to shout louder to help those women who do not.

Baby or Career? Why is It Still a Question?

The fact is we still haven’t sorted the baby issue. Women are subject to opprobrium if they do and if they don’t, from all quarters, men and women. Assumptions are made about women of child bearing age, and assumptions are made about women wanting, or being able to, have families. Every woman I have talked to feels guilt, whichever way she jumps. We all need to be asking questions about this and making demands.

I would argue that everyone in society has a responsibility towards the next generation, whether they want or have children or not. It is not just an issue for women of child bearing age. It’s for us all to come up with a system which ensures we have well cared for and loved children across the piece, whether we are rich or poor, career women, or working for a pittance to survive. And it’s not just a woman’s issue!

We could do this differently. It is not beyond us to come up with something which is a win for us all but we need to throw away some of our preconceived notions and prejudices.

Lasting Impact

As you can doubtless tell, that incident sits deep within my psyche. As a young woman at university in the 70s I thought I had it all sorted.

It’s one of the reasons my management project was on lack of women at managerial level (assisted by that self same University many years later) which led to the establishment of a woman’s group.

It’s one of the reasons I am passionate about giving women the confidence to challenge the status quo, to feel able to be true to themselves and not merely try to be like men. I don’t blame or vilify men; they are as trapped in some of these old behaviours as we women are. (My husband had to fight like mad to get paternity leave and he cried when he had to go back to work and leave us behind.)

It’s also one of the reasons I wrote RenewYou, to empower as many women as I can, to boost their confidence. And it’s one of the reasons I want to reach as many women as I can with it. It’s my passionate endeavour. I am aiming for a million. I am aiming for change.

Thinking of expanding your training business? Are you passionate about empowering women? I can help you! To find out how, click here.

Photo by Kelsey Johnson

Women, Do Sweat the Small Stuff – it matters


Posted on April 22nd, 2013 by

6 Responses to “I’m With Sheryl – Women, How Often Do You Ask?”

  1. Laura Woods-Dunlop says:

    Well written Mum, and as you know you turned out to be a bloody fantastic mum despite that eejit!

  2. Chloe Donneky says:

    Fantastic reading ~ I work and raise my two young children. I enjoy both and feel strongly about women having the right to do so without being made to feel like bad mothers. EMPOWERING WOMEN! Chloe

    • Jane says:

      Absolutely. See the comment from my first born. Clearly did her no harm, and she’s a very assertive, confident young woman. Thanks.

  3. Yes, I sooo agree with Sheryl Sandberg. We do need women to take the responsibility, lean in and go for those senior jobs. Just so they can then show what women do, and how women contribute and make it easier for everyone following.

    And, sorry to say, that I recently heard a recruiter mention these questions often come up, and it means women do NOT get selected for eg. a job with lots of travel (‘as it wouldn’t be fair on her young family’). It’s still happening, hopefully just less.

    • Jane says:

      Oh it still goes on. Just heard of a case recently involving a friend’s daughter – passed over for promotion because she has a young family and made to sound like they were doing her a favour.

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