Monday, 14 September 2009

Working mum success lessons from The Apprentice

Margaret Mountford, ousted from The Apprentice to take up a librarian position, was profile in Saturday's Times( cheerily inviting women to "hang in there" in order to get to the most senior positions, at the same time deploring women's expectations for wanting "exceptional" treatment during the early childbearing years.

It's a piece that makes you think. I was first struck by how tough the 56 year old has probably had to be in order to achieve what she has. The European vice president of one of my clients, America's largest rental car business, has always observed how much tougher senior women can be on aspiring women, and Margaret Mountford is a wonderful example of that.

Achieving seniority in the breakthrough years of women in the senior workspace, her exhortation for women to be tough tells us as much about what she has learnt was required during her generation as what is needed now. Her advice is given as much in our interests as it is indicative of her outlook and historical place in the evolution of the modern workplace.

I tend to agree with her about the positive discrimination - all discrimination is wrong, however well intentioned. The truth is that EVERYONE, men and women, at all levels, should be allowed flexibility in their career in order to care for those for whom they are responsible without being penalised in the careers.

I sold my business in 2007, and for the two or three years leading up to the sale, my business partner and I had strangely parallel if inverse lives. I cared then and still for my two children, now seven and four. She still cares for her mother, now in her 80s and living in sheltered accommodation, as well as a disabled elder brother in his 60s. She herself is in her 50s and chose not to have children.

Truthfully, there were times when my business partner required greater flexibility to visit respite homes and discuss her brother's welfare with various social workers across London than I ever required to care for my children.

I also agree with Mountford that women should "hang in there". I've written before that we should do this for our daughters, and our sons, who hopefully will find a more humanitarian workplace, shaped to the needs to people, when they get to an age where they need to work.

I suspect where I disagree is in fundamental principles. I think business as well as public and third sector organisations should evolve, flex and change to the needs of people, not force people into compromises, unneccessary choices and sacrifices which can put at risk the welfare of those, young and old, who require unconstrained protection.

We invented businesses - we can change them. In fact, we have the responsibility to change how businesses operated for the good of everyone as innovation, technology and discovery leads us to discover new and better ways to do what is required. And I believe that we will change them, as long as women do "hang in there" and make our positive contribution felt.

Business is the weaker for the absence of strong, experienced women in senior roles. I see it around me everyday.

If businesses do discriminate positively to ensure women stay in the workplace, it is as much for their own sake as that of the women themselves.

It just struck me, crass as it is, that care is also in career. The two should not and need not be in conflict.


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