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Some prominent businesswomen believe they are being asked to disclose more about their personal lives as they climb the career ladder than their male counterparts.
One seemingly innocent but frequently asked question illustrates the keen interest in the balance that women have to achieve between their professional and private lives – “how do you make it work?”
Campaigners say that this question would hardly ever be put to a man and that it implicitly raises doubts over women’s commitment to their professional lives.
Similarly, in a recent interview for Executive Appointments, one female chief executive declined to answer questions about her home life, saying her own achievements might then be attributed to having a supportive husband and family – or to being single or childless.
Deborah Meaden, the entrepreneur whose profile rose dramatically when she began appearing on the BBC’s popular television show Dragons’ Den, has developed strict boundaries around the parts of her life that she will and will not discuss.
“I was fairly nervous about mentioning anything at the start, but I am clear now about what I will and won’t talk about,” she explains. “You will never see a picture of my home, but there are stories that I have decided I don’t mind talking about – like the fact that I keep pigs and sheep. Who my friends are and what I do in my private life is not public information,” she says.
But she believes that the scale of interest in her personal life is the result of her media career, as much as her gender.
“There are more men in business and so it’s a fact that if you are a woman you are a rarity and therefore you will attract more interest. And there is interest in how your life works because the traditional form is that women look after the family. But a lot of business people go about their life without anyone being interested in their home life.”
Caroline Garnham, founder and chief executive of Family Bhive, the social networking website for wealthy individuals, says many high profile women fear the “JK Rowling experience”, where unwelcome public interest is extended to their children, who become a target for the media.
But, she adds, parents who maintain a balance between home and business are interesting. “People are interested in how women manage their lives. And I think that’s fine, it just depends on how the question is asked.”
Peninah Thomson, director of the FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme, is less sure that pursuing a line of questioning about successful women’s home lives is a good idea.
“It’s perhaps not surprising that women executives are frequently asked about how they balance their professional and their personal lives, but I’m not sure it’s helpful,” she says.
“It runs the risk of implying that senior women may be grappling with challenges that are insurmountable, when the evidence is that professional women are succeeding in resolving those challenges – that they can be addressed.”
She admits that matters of childcare costs, taxation and career progression for women who take time out of work to have children are important and worth discussing, but would prefer that the focus of these debates was more positive: “Focusing relentlessly on the difficulties rather than arguing for creative solutions, doesn’t help.”
The fact that Helena Morrissey, chief executive of Newton Investment Management, has nine children is often raised in profiles written about her, but Rebecca Harding, chief executive of economics consultancy Delta Economics, believes this is because it is an eye-catching fact, not because she is a woman.
“These sorts of facts are the things that make you interesting to the world at large,” she argues. “If you have a high profile then you will be asked questions about your personal life, irrespective of whether you are a man or a woman.“
She agrees with Ms Meaden that women in senior positions attract more attention that their male counterparts because they are less common, but has found that the group most interested in her home life is other women.
“I speak at a lot of women’s events and I am always asked about my domestic situation. I accept it and I will talk about anything. Your personal experiences make you who you are and affect what you bring to the workplace.”
Heather Jackson, chief executive of An Inspirational Journey, an organisation that aims to increase the number of women in senior positions, is adamant that women should be open about their home lives.
“We need more role models, we need women to talk honestly about how they live their lives so that other women can learn from them and we can address the fact that there are so few women in the C-suite [in executive roles],” she says.
Ms Jackson, who raised two children as a single mother at the same time as starting her business, says she has made a point of always being open about her personal situation.
“I think women are worried about being judged on something outside of their professional life, but professional identities depend on personality and chemistry as well as skills,” she says.
“Women will get asked these questions and they can use it to their advantage – so long as they are prepared for the possibility that there is a subconscious question ‘can you do this role?’ behind the one that’s being asked.”
But Ms Jackson also thinks that the question is no longer put to women alone. Personal questions are becoming a mainstay of business conversations, she says, regardless of gender.
Ms Harding agrees. “The subject of families used to be a complete no-go area, but over the past 10 years there has been a real shift. Business leaders are coached to introduce bits of their personal life to their corporate life – because it’s their story and personal experiences that make them who they are.”