21st century women need to stop trying to “Have it All”

by | Sep 20, 2017

21st century women should forget trying to "Have it All"

There has been a spate of "having it all" posts recently. I have to tell you, they worry me. It's an outdated phrase and 21st century women need to find a replacement catchphrase. Quickly.

The sound bite was first coined in 1982 by Helen Gurley Brown, then Editor of Cosmo  (not by Anne-Marie Slaughter) in her book Having It All.  She kicked off a “Having it all” movement, advocating that it was possible to have a successful career, money, great kids and relationships, look fabulous, have fun, AND great sex.  Don’t forget this was at a time when grey was still a colour, not a shade and a play room was a safe place for kids.

Women and the Workplace

This was also a point in our history when women were just starting to enter the workplace in a serious way and only a very small percentage were university graduates. It was a time when women still felt guilty (and were made to feel guilty) about working and needed permission to do so. "Career girls" identified in the 70s, by this time had mutated even further into “working Mums” separating them from “stay at home mums” (a.k.a. normal women) which only served to create a rift between the two groups. Being a working Mum was a luxury and women were made to feel they had to incorporate all the responsibilities of being a "normal woman" with their professional jobs. Having a career was a supplement to their real work. They were set up to struggle.

In today's culture and workplaces, 21st century women have a different experience and this is catch phrase is no longer appropriate or relevant.

21st century women

Today women represent 60% of university graduates and make up 50% of the workforce. 30% of major breadwinners are women. The notion of "having it all" is an outdated stereotyping concept which embeds perfectionism into a woman's life. They are chasing the holy grail. It doesn't exist. Or if it does, it comes in different forms for different women and also their partners. Having it all may also come at a price. Previous generations came to understand that it really meant "doing it all" or "managing it all." For most women this is exhausting and many women of the era felt duped.

In 2004 Shirley Conran of "super woman" fame (as in the book) who was around before even HGB, eventually came to realise:

"you don’t need a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist”

Today with salaries stagnating at the same levels as the early 80s, many families are economically reliant on a two income household. It's no longer a luxury for women to go out to work. It's not a supplement but a necessity for many. The phrase  also means different things to different women in different geographies. It fails women of colour who trail behind their white female counterparts particularly in terms of salary.

Check out: 3Plus Career Coaching Programs for aspiring women

Can you have it all?

In a post on LinkedIn Helen Honisett asks  Can you have it all?   She addresses key challenges for 21st century women and also poses  a critical question.

How can I talk to my better half about what I need from them? (I am fortunate in this respect as he is amazing, but not everyone is so lucky)

So not only are women today encountering corporate resistance, many are still working out how to navigate jointly agreed priorities within their relationship to find somewhere near the balance they are looking for. Gender balance is more than a workplace issue. It isn’t just about equal split of household chores or 50% of executives being female. Although that would indeed be good. It is about redefining gender expectations and letting go the penalties we impose when men and women, boys and girls step out of their pre-defined boxes. Both men and women should be given the freedom to be carers and nurturers, or assertive revenue generators or a combination of both. Maybe at different times, or even at the same time. It shouldn’t matter. It should reflect 21st century culture and realities.

Suggesting women try to "have it all" fails both men and women in equal measure.

Men want different

A recent U.K. survey says that in the "largest ever study of the workforce" 90% of men want flexible working and it should no longer be considered the "mummy track". Flexible working was defined as either "part-time, or if full-time, a work pattern that involves reduced hours, shift choices or the ability to work at home for some, or all, of the working week."

The survey also set out to 'bust the mum myth,  break the stereotypes and "preconceptions that flexible working is only for women with children"  Men should be able to take paternity leave without stress from their peers and bosses. Organisations need to reflect shifts in modern culture and many are slow to do so. They are decades behind. Millennials are leading the way in this push for change. Work life balance and career opportunities are almost equally important to them and many would take a pay-cut for increased flexibility.

So I plead with 21st century women coming through the ranks to find a new catch phrase that resonates for them. Whatever it is.

You really don't want to go back in time. You don't need or don't even want to have it all.

Don’t wait for someone to look after you – it may not happen.  Invest in yourself now with 3Plus International!

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.
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