A LAWYER, a woman just turned 30, was talking work-life balance.No, she agreed, the job offered her no time for a personal life.
But it offered interest, challenge, excitement, a high salary and a sense of being at the beating heart of international affairs.
And yes, it required commitment, long hours and work at weekends. But she was keeping a weather eye on the baby clock. Meantime, she was enjoying her success.
And why not?
I looked at her with admiration. She's good-looking, well groomed, charming and thoughtful. In my youth these were most of the attributes she would have required to make it in the world. But she has added several languages and first-class academic qualifications to the mix.
It's an unbeatable package. With young women like this in the workforce, no wonder male contemporaries are finding it harder and harder to compete. Yet women of my age are given to sucking our teeth and speculating that too many young career women will miss out on motherhood. Maybe we need to ask instead: does it matter? Have they got something better?
Why are we jumpy on their behalf when clearly they are managing their lives better than we did ours, better than their grandmothers did theirs – in fact better than any generation of women that has ever lived?
What a revolution it has been.
Look at the lives led by the women in Downton Abbey. It's hard to believe it is set less than a century ago. A servant who had a baby is reduced to prostitution to survive. The housekeeper, threatened with a cancer diagnosis, is reassured that if she is ill, she can stay in the house and she will be looked after. In other words it would be normal to turn her out: sickness spelled destitution.
Upstairs meanwhile, a jilted daughter wept. Without a husband to give her a position in the world she was "a spinster who must make herself useful". She was in her twenties and on the shelf. Marriage and motherhood was the only route to a secure future.
Not quite 100 years later, it's men, not women, who are looking to their laurels. In the US, three-quarters of those made redundant in the recession were men. A newly published book, The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, says that because women make up half the workforce for the first time in history, we can expect a shift in the way society deals with marriage, love sex – also cooking, cleaning and raising children.
I hope that's right.
More women than men go to university. 56% of new doctors are women and 60% of new solicitors. According to a survey in Marie Claire magazine three-quarters of women in their twenties and thirties think work is very important – or the most important thing in their life. In fact a third of them have delayed motherhood for the sake of their career.
They have enough on their plate. They are paying down student debt, saving for a deposit on a home of their own and stretching to place their chalk mark as high as possible on the career ladder – because they know that time is short if they're also to have children. Motherhood will mean time out. They fear returning to the relegation bench.
It's hard but they're not complaining.
We shouldn't be surprised that settling down and having a family are no longer their first ambitions. Since time immemorial these things have been a matter of survival. No longer.
Young men with futures to build were never in a hurry to marry. No-one questioned then that a lucrative career with prospects was one of life's pleasures and provided for many more. Why question it now that women are enjoying it?
But we do harbour a prejudice. It is that a woman needs a baby to be truly happy. We see it as a sadness that 40% of educated women born between 1965 and 1975 are childless. How arrogant the older generations are; how presumptuous.
It could more justly be claimed the women to be pitied were those condemned to a baby every year. Today's young women have financial independence and therefore choice. The trick for them is finding the balance.
So can we look forward to women filling the topmost ranks in the foreseeable future? If so could there be even better prospects for society. Might they introduce a working culture that cuts a bit of slack for those who have a family?
Might the all-or-nothing rule that exists now be replaced by an ethos that acknowledges the need for the next generation to be born and raised – and that flexes accordingly?
Never say never, but it looks like it won't happen soon. Despite the catchy title of Hanna Rosin's book, we haven't seen the end of men. They still command the top of the career pyramid largely because bright women jump ship when they reach their mid-thirties.
It's the modern age for starting a family and redressing the work-life balance. It's a way of having it all – not simultaneously but sequentially.
There is a fly in this otherwise skilfully managed plan and it's this. Achieving a successful career is a matter of will. Diligence, determination and a modicum of talent will take you far. You can be as determined as you like about achieving a successful marriage or partnership and wind up alone.
Women are being flexible. More of them are choosing husbands who earn less than they do; men willing to take a supportive role. But luck remains necessary when finding a mate: compatibility and chemistry too. Fate plays its part. Timing is important and time – but not the sort that can be scheduled.
As for expecting those women who stay on their career path to introduce a more compassionate and caring new order, Rosin suggests we might have to think again. She says female adaptability extends to acquiring traditionally male attitudes: hence "killer' women on Wall Street.
But she's talking about pioneers. Path finders have to be tougher than those who follow. I think these bright young women do want it all and on the evidence so far they'll re-write the rule book as they go along.
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