Today we celebrate International Women’s Day, and I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a woman and a feminist in modern society. Years ago, after I’d had a long stint of singledom, one of my great-aunts asked me: "Why haven’t you had a husband yet?" I quipped: "I have had husbands, aunty ji, just not my own," which made everyone smile. But it hurt. I had a good job, but had I failed because I didn’t have a husband and kids? Eventually I did acquire a husband and got pregnant, but I lost both, the spouse to a younger, slimmer blonde and the baby to Mother Nature.
So, having spent much of my adult life unmarried and childless, I have sometimes felt huge pressure to compensate by being "successful" in my work. And I am. I love my job: it matters and I’m good at it. Yet I am still frequently asked what my next step is or when I am going to take on a bigger role with a bigger salary or make the "big" move into the private sector – the presumption being I haven’t succeeded yet.
I think these questions arise because so many of our conversations about success are framed within a "masculine" paradigm. Success is about how far up the pyramid you’ve climbed, the size of your salary, your role, your organisation, your workforce, your car, your house (and other appendages). And the pressure is on women to prove we are just as "good" as men by having that same "success". Whether single or married, mothers or child-free, we’re told we need to apply for the "big" jobs, earn the money and stick one over on men at their own game.
But are these really the best measures of success? I’m reminded of two blokes: Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady singing "Why can’t a woman be more like a man?" in the song A Hymn to Him; and a chap who said he thought I was really lucky to work for a charity because it was so much easier than working in the "real" world.
Well, maybe the reason that almost 70 per cent of our sector workforce is made up of women is that charitable work is gritty, hard, emotionally draining, complex and challenging, demanding high levels of political, financial and social acumen yet not terribly well paid. It is a crucial part of our economy, with failure having serious consequences, because when we fail sometimes people die.
Our workers are highly skilled, knowledgeable and, yes, mostly women. They’re paid what their charities can afford, sit on broken chairs in tatty offices recycling the paper and mending the loo, while keeping our nation whole: fixing the broken, healing the wounded, loving the loveless, building the bridges, nurturing the struggling, changing society for the better. So we need the best people doing it.
I think our concept of success is completely skewwhiff. Yes, we need women
leading in politics and commerce, if only to change the paradigms of success. Maybe success isn’t about shareholder value but about ethical trading, not about maximising profit but about generating employment, not about how much you get but about how much you give. Maybe success is being good enough to work for a charity.
Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change