As a 21st century working woman, can we really have it all? 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about being a woman in business, the dreaded “juggle” term we all hear far too often and examples of women who when they do implement boundaries to protect their mental health such as professional tennis player Naomi Osaka, are publicly shamed or dammed in some way.

We have terms such as #GirlBoss promising a world where women can “have it all” the success, the money and the power within a system that is just not designed for women, whilst at the same time being held to unrealistic expectations and “held account for how ethical and virtuous they are as leaders in a way men are not” [ref – Vox: The death of the girlboss]

Let’s take a look at Whitney Wolfe Herd the most recent self-made billionaire. The woman who has it all? In February 2021, Bumble, her social dating app, topped $13 billion in valuation after listing shares on the Nasdaq exchange. There she was the day they went public, her baby in her left arm and the billion dollar drop button in her right. This woman seemingly has it all, the success, the wealth and the family. But in a recent interview I read she said she wakes up multiple times a night to answer emails, if she doesn’t, she can’t sleep. Sleep allows you to replenish the cup, it allows you to nurture your well-being and restore your mental and physical health. Can sacrificing such essentials really mean you can say you have it all? What are the sacrifices we have to make to seemingly have it all? And if we are making such sacrifices, perhaps having it all isn’t what it’s cracked up to be?

What would you be prepared to sacrifice to have that level of success? How do you define, ‘having it all’? Maybe you already have it all in fragmented moments and for you that’s what success, wealth and happiness is? 

In our capitalist society, where childcare costs are through the roof and expectations of women seem higher than those for our male counterparts (to be perfect, virtuous leaders) Can we as working women have it all? 

It appears that when we do “have it all” it’s not enough, we need to do more than the average man just to prove we’ve earned our place and even then we’re under scrutiny at every stage or our success. 

I put the following questions to our community and below are some of the responses I received.

How do you define, ‘having it all’ and what are your opinions on striving to have it all? Is it possible? Or is it time to redefine what this looks like for the modern working woman?

Emily Button-Lynham, Founder of Emily Button Creative and a business and life coach says “I think ‘having it all’ is a fallacy and a hangover from our parents’ generation. I don’t think we can do everything we want to do at exactly the same time, instead I think we need to think about our lives and work in phases, where we have a key priority and try and do the best we can on everything else. I don’t think this makes us any less determined or motivated to grow and progress our lives and business, but instead takes off that pressure to be constantly striving in every aspect of our life which just isn’t realistic and doesn’t make us happy.”

Monica Karpinski, Founder & Editor of Femedic says “In our society, the phrase “having it all” has come to refer to women — and the phrase is always used to refer to women — who are able to juggle family life with all other aspects of their lives, and completely excel in all of it. As well as being a supermum, we need to be able to smash it in the boardroom but also take amazing care of ourselves — and to do it all with a smile.


This is an impossible goal that I believe sets us up to fail, because it creates impossible expectations for what success looks like. 


There is also a sinister undertone here, because “having it all” is seen as a feminist goal — but really, it’s just playing into the idea that women have to juggle to be successful. It tells is that we can never really let go of the caregiver role, we just have to fold it into our schedule and make it work, like the #Girlbosses we are. 


Do we really need to stretch ourselves so thin, and burn ourselves out, to be “successful”? I don’t think that we should. 


I absolutely think that we need to redefine ideas of what success looks like. Success measures should be individual, and discussions about success should also consider how a person’s privileges or situation have contributed to their success. This isn’t to cut anyone down, but just to make discussions about success more realistic and inclusive.”

Jess Rad, Founder of the WomenHood says “We’ve all been told we can ‘have it all’, but alas this has resulted in us trying to ‘DO it all’. Which is simply not possible, and a key reason for the chronic stress and burnout that so many women are suffering from today. How do we change this? We need to examine where we’re losing our most precious nonrenewable resource – our time. Our minds are filled with a neverending list of things to do, and the reality is, we need to redistribute those – at home and at work. And some of tasks we just need to decide to never do anymore! (think: striving for perfection).


A good question to ask ourselves is – would I wish this life on my daughter/niece/sister/best friend? If the answer is no, it’s time to make some changes. For what we’re choosing to do now, is influencing those around us. If we find a way to change our world, we begin to change The World.”

Keri Jarvis, The Audacity Coach, helping women to reclaim “who does she think she is?!” says I think about this a lot. It seems there are a couple of key versions we get to choose from.Let’s call the first one ‘traditional’- that’s basically underpinned by being super busy, but having enough money to buy ‘it all’- help, stuff, experiences, etc. (And even when we get the help, there’s never really enough help, because there are plenty of things that cannot be outsourced). The second one, let’s call it ‘boss babe’- that’s more like having enough time and flexibility to do ‘it all’- don’t need help anymore because we turn 6 figures in 5 mins per day, with a kid on each hip, still want the stuff and experiences.


Babes, I don’t want either of them. For me, having it all is about looking beyond what we are being offered- Capitalist ideals, and their White Feminist equivalents. Having it all is about overthrowing systems that present us only with undesirable options. Both of the above require us to perform ‘good womanhood/ motherhood’, when what we need is disruptive, difficult women and mothers demanding new ways of doing things.


Having it all for me includes:

  • Equity in the division of labour at home (and the damn school runs)
  • Time to read my books and have a cuppa with my plants
  • Time, energy and resources to support causes I care about in my community
  • Space to learn
  • Work I love to do
  • A multi-faceted support network 

Having it all must begin with believing we are worthy of lives that work for us, even if they don’t make sense from the outside. Next comes a willingness to accept that different seasons of our lives will lead us to make different compromises. We are here to experience it all, but it needn’t be all at once. We get to create our own versions, and give them space to evolve.


The idea of ‘Having it all’ really hit the mainstream with the publication of former Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown’s book way back in the early 80s. Although apparently she herself hated that phrase.  The way we think of it now wasn’t actually what the book was about.  In fact it barely even mentioned kids.  It was probably far more like the precursor of Sex in the City – of sex and the single girl – rather than work life balance and the immense challenge of managing kids and a career. Because it was all so incredibly different back then! 

Sue Llewellyn, former BBC journalist turned social media consultant, coach and trainer So I think we’re kind of missing the point when talking about having it all and it’s bonkers to think this is even remotely possible. 


Nobody has it all – whatever IT is.  I feel it masks the real issues of equal pay, flexible working, practical and affordable childcare and far more support for working families.  Especially working women.  Because no matter what, it is almost always the women who take on the bulk of the caring duties.  Not just for kids but for ageing parents etc.  


So for us to balance our lives – our work, home, family, relationships AND to have something left in the tank to nurture ourselves is bloody hard.  And to add in feeling inadequate because it appears someone else has more – or ALL – is not just an unhealthy illusion, it’s a downright lie.  


I also feel the whole ‘Lean In’ concept is missing the mark – it’s all very well leaning in but you need something – and someone – to lean on if you’re to achieve a healthy balance. And most people don’t have that. 


What I really hope is that the pandemic has helped us shift priorities and be more accepting and realistic about life and the pressures of work/life.  But it’s time now to get practical about forcing change.  If we’re to recover post-Brexit and post-pandemic we need to support women in the workplace and in the home.  

Nobody can have it all.  We’re chasing the wrong dreams (which may well be driven by unrealistic expectations of social media) and I feel we should shift our personal priorities and expectations.  In many ways less is more.  Far more.

It seems clear from the comments above that as our standards and expectations evolve for what we as women can achieve, so does the meaning of ‘having it all’ and yet there seems to be no room for error or flexibility in this ideology. We find ourslsves in the aftermath of decades of various feminist movements, empowered with our voice, power and true potential only to be landed with this unrealistic expectation of needing to succeed in every area of our life simultaneoulsy in order to achieve this utopian status. Anything less than perfect and we deem our efforts “not good enough”, trapped in a comparison cycle of inauthentic and unrealistic ideas of what it means to be a working woman in the 21st century.

Rather than redefining what the phrase ‘having it all’ really means, perhaps on a more conscious level we can acknowledge the fact that this will mean different things to different people. And that the act of comparing ones definition to another, means it’s packed with nuance which makes it unrealistic for the individual and a completely fruitless exercise.

As we all strive for different levels of success and happiness (with varying ways to determine these!) be it a flexible working career so we can spend more time doing the things we really love or running a billion dollar valued business, true contentment will come with the peace of mind that we do not have to be everything to everyone all of the time. We have super powers but let’s face it, we’re only human. We make mistakes, we lose our shit, we get things wrong, we get overwhelmed, we find work/life/parenting/relationships tough sometimes and that’s ok! 

For too long we’ve been held to unrealistically high expectations. 

It’s time we stomp out this archaic view of what the  working woman looks like. And let’s celebrate that we as women are incredibly resourceful, resilient and powerful forces of nature and we don’t need a glossy Instagram post, news headline or magazine feature to tell us what ‘perfect’ or ‘successful’ really looks like to us. 


Let’s face it, sometimes we just want to cuddle up on the sofa in the evenings, with the ones that we love and the peace of mind that we can take on another day and enjoy what we can when we can. 


Maya Angelou once said “success is liking who you are, what you do and how you do it.” 

A big thank you to all of our contributors. What are your thoughts? What does ‘having it all’ mean to you? Feel free to share in the comments below.

 

Lara Sheldrake

Lara Sheldrake

About your author

Lara Sheldrake is a business mentor, consultant and Founder at Found & Flourish. Lara writes and speaks on the topics of entrepreneurship, motherhood and social media for business. She also hosts the Bossing It podcast, aimed at empowering the next generation of female founders in the UK.

 

Send Lara an email. You can also find her on Instagram @Lara_Sheldrake or Twitter @Lara_Sheldrake.

 

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