Refections on Hilary Devey’s Women At The Top

I knew I would enjoy this documentary and I wasn’t disappointed as Hilary confronted a wide spectrum of reasons and views on why there weren’t more women at the top of business empires and what could be done to encourage more women into executive directors roles.

Whitehall juggler

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It’s a subject that I would have been more interested though 10 years ago when in 2000 I had a two year old and was juggling clambering up the career ladder towards an exec directors role and fending off all sorts of curved balls (usually in the form of others in my slipstream wanting my job!)

Gender balance

Gender balance wasn’t a phrase that was well used in those days. It could be that it was just the companies I was working for but even outside of the company, any woman in senior management usually had a trail of gossip following behind her… that she had either slept her way to the top, was a friend or family member of someone on the board, was devoting themselves to a career because they couldn’t have children, or was a “dyke” (sorry to use that word but it’s one I heard regularly describing female managers so I thought I would say it as I heard it!”

Jokes were regularly made about opening doors and not doing it because of political correctness, or any sexual remarks were usually followed with a jokey disclaimer.

But that was the easy part.

Returning from Maternity Leave

The hard part was leaving my first born in 1998 whilst he was still asleep in his cot in his sleep suit and coming home to him asleep in his cot in his sleep suit. There were mornings when I would drive to a meetings 200 miles away at 5am crying that I never actually saw him awake between Monday to Friday. I would sit in a meetings and think “I don’t want to be here”.

This wasn’t because I didn’t want to be good at my job. It was just that my 9-5 job actually required my absence from my home between 5-6.30am to 8-9pm and so many things before 9 and after 5 seemed completely unnecessary to me. I started to get intolerant of meetings and events organised for managers before 9am and after 5pm when I felt they should have been organised for in core working hours.

I’m not just talking about the odd breakfast meeting or team building event. I’m talking about the huge amount of extra out of hours working. Jollies/networking/hospitality in the city, meetings with suppliers, customers, internal project or staff meetings which would usually require either an overnight stay for an early morning start, or a late evening and overnight stays.

The amount of  hours would probably be in the region of a further 30 hours each week on top of my normal working day.

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It was part and parcel of the jacket-always-on-the-back-of-the-chair culture. If you are lucky enough to not know what I mean by this it’s how personal reputations are formed as a measure of how hard working someone is as they are always in early and leave late.

It was like that in all four corporates (plc’s) that I worked in around that time. You knew when people took it too seriously when they bought in extra jackets from home to alternate and place on their chairs at home times to make it look as if they were still there!

I’ve even known people to fiddle the lights so that if it was a modern building where the lights only stayed on over that desk area when movement was triggered for energy saving reasons, the lights were rigged to give the impression of working late! How desperate some people were for promotion!

Remote working – freedom or a bind?

I remember the first day I was shown THE INTERNET and not long after I was allowed a dial up connection for my work laptop from home … Now I was ALWAYS working!

A lot of this extra working time wasn’t spent working towards a career promotion either but rather defending my position in the job I was in by keeping up with everyone else who was putting discretionary effort into their job roles.   It wasn’t long before dial up became a dedicated work broadband connection at home with VPN access followed by a Blackberry!  People would soon look at me as if I had grown two heads if I hadn’t read the email from the CEO that came out at 10pm the night before.

Positive Discrimination – The Working Mum Career Woman

I remember being successful in a job application for a new company. I went through around 5 stages in the recruitment process – recruitment agency interview, preliminary interview, assessment centre and psychometric testing, two stage final interview.  I was over the moon to get the job and felt that I would get on well with my new boss and felt excited about the role and the company I would be working for.

On day two my new boss and I were walking down the stairs chatting and he turned to me and said “I think it’s great that your team will have a positive role model showing that a young woman like you can have a career and children”.  The penny dropped with me then and I realised that my appointment was more to do with sending out a career-mum image and had little to do with my skills, experience and achievements. This was confirmed a bit later on when I learned more about my predecessor and why they wanted a career-mum role model.

In some ways this is harder to deal with than out and out sexism as at least you know what you are up against with that.

I have always managed and been successful in leading large teams who are predominantly women. In my last job role I had an utterly awesome all female management team who went on to beat company records and achieve some brilliant goals and awards. I like to think that my gender has absolutely zilch to do with that. I bet they would like to think that too!

Be Careful What You Wish For

In my case I had set my sights on a particular career goal from a fairly young age. I achieved that goal in my late twenties and set my sights a bit higher. I achieved that goal too which at that point was measured by salary and financial bonuses.

However, when I got there I realised I didn’t want it any more.

I found it exasperating to be working alongside corporate numb-nuts.

Let’s talk about the Corporate Numb-nuts.

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You may recognise some of these types …

1) People who think it is a great idea to have a brain-storming session at 6am on a Monday morning. Why oh why would anyone want to do that?

2) People who treat everything as an emergency / disaster / crisis that requires a late meeting to “workshop the problem” or similar. These people were usually a) singletons with only a handful of friends b) old boys who wanted to avoid/delay going home or c) those who wanted undivided attention for everyone and their uncle whilst they climbed the career ladder or d) the drinkers who would come up with any meeting that could be held at an alcohol serving venue

3) The serial networkers and influencers who flit about chat chatting and buttering up all and sundry so that they are “well connected” giving them to influence and power. They are pretty good at organising social events ie; bowling at 2 hours notice. If you re-buff these people you will get tarnished at being a “part timer” or “not committed to the company” even if you do work an 80 hour week and are more effective in one hour than they are in a full working month.

4) People who generally like the sound of their own voice especially after 5.30 these are people who start to murder you with powerpoint or strategic planning slowly after you are first introduced to them.  You can guarantee that whenever you have a doctors appointment to get home for they have to share the findings of a recent survey in person in powerpoint with extreme clipart animation and after dark! Quite creepy.

5) People who insist on working through the night on projects to “mitigate project risks and maximise engagement” deserve to be shot!  There are odd occasions that warrant this but they are truly very rare and only really where disruption to customers is to be avoided.

But anything at all that is just normal day to day work should be done in normal day to day hours. Why there is this craving for drama and working through the night with stupid amounts of red bull forced down your neck is quite frankly employee abuse.

6) People’s who really want to see you but they are too busy.  This is always someone more senior or someone who it is difficult to say no to. Sometimes it’s a female manager out to prove that she can be busier and work work longer hours than anyone else. In any case these people make out that they must meet with you as a matter of utmost importance. Yet 9-5 hours won’t do because it’s not THAT important!  These people used to drive me bonkers.

You are welcome to it Hilary!

I have a best mate who has made it to CEO and she is an utterly fantastic person. She has a flat near where she works and travels home at the weekend (or some weekends she doesn’t).  She is a brilliantly successful person and she is far more talented, dedicated and committed to the career ladder than I ever was.

Whilst I would love to do her job there is no way on earth that I would have continued to jump through hoops as she has and she deserves to be a millionaire several times over for what she has given by way of commitment and hard work.

I tried walking up the mountains of a foreign country whilst 7 months pregnant in the name of team building and I wasn’t very good at it.  I did my fair bit of replying to urgent emails whilst on a lilo by the side of the pool on a family holiday but wasn’t on the ball enough. I will admit that sometimes I didn’t listen that carefully on that call to my mobile at 10pm and have been known to put my boss on mute and I can sleep at night without feeling any guilt.

If this is what women at the top means then I can hand on heart say … You are welcome to it Hilary. I’ll leave it if it’s all the same to you as I value my sanity and health.

My business may be small and not growing very fast. I may be a bit of an old fogey at the age of 41 and not a young and up and coming whizz kid.

But … I am quite happy thank you very much.

If and when I feel like putting my foot flat to the pedal again I will do it for myself and I shall do it effectively :) and if I don’t feel like working like that ever again that’s also fine with me too.








  • Bryony Thomas

    Thanks Maxine. It’s an interesting debate for sure. I don’t think I had realised how many extra hours I was typically working until I wasn’t able to do them. When there’s hard stop on the day for bath and bed time, you just can’t keep going. I will blog my own thoughts on the programme. I think, in many ways, that I wish I could be happy to take a few years out to devote to being a Mum… but I don’t think I have it in me. Hilary was spot-on that 4 years out in a working life of 40-50 years really isn’t much. If it were the norm to take time out, and getting back into work again afterwards were easier, maybe I could settle more easily into it. Tricky! I’m rambling now… sorry.

  • Hudson Accountants

    I second all that. My kids are now 7 and 8 and I’m happy with my decision.

    • Maxine

      Yay Della x … Do you think accounting and financial careers particularly unforgiving?

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