Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It took me 15 years to land the perfect job - and just one to realise I no longer wanted it

By Jennifer O'Connell

In 1898, the British journalist Arnold Bennett - who would go on to become a celebrated novelist - published a guide for women journalists.

The second chapter of his pamphlet, which is still available to download free online, is entitled ‘Imperfections of the existing Woman-Journalist’.

‘‘Is there any sexual reason why a woman should be a less accomplished journalist than a man?" he wondered. ‘‘I can find none." And yet he suffered from no such shortage of evidence for the thesis that they were - quite spectacularly - less accomplished.

 War correspondent Martha Gellhorn defied Bennett's stereotype of the female journalist

‘‘Women-journalists are unreliable as a class . . . the influences of domesticity are too strong to be lightly thrown off," he lamented.

They suffered, he argued. from ‘‘slipshod style . . . an undue insistence, a shrillness . . . a garrulous, gesticulating, inefficacy’’; they were ‘‘inaccurate and careless’’; they overused metaphors and similes ‘‘with glee’’; were too prone to writing ‘‘fanciful essays’’; ‘‘too fond of corresponding with editors’’; and so forgetful that they were liable not to include their own names in their correspondence. But take heart, aspiring female journalists: Bennett concluded that you were not entirely without hope.

With the sound advice of his guide, they could hope to make a decent career writing about ‘‘nature notes; household affairs; country occupations; parochial management; home handiwork; village sketches’’ - and even ‘‘fashion, cookery and domestic economy, furniture, the toilet, and (less exclusively) weddings’’.

Over a century later, the outlook for women hoping to pursue a career in the media is a little less bleak.

We are, fortunately, no longer confined to writing about parochial management and penning amusing village sketches - there are female national newspaper editors, business journalists, political correspondents, current affairs presenters, radio producers, economics correspondents, and so on.

But Bennett can rest easy in the knowledge that there are still fewer females involved in producing what one of my colleagues calls ‘‘the serious bit of the paper’’.

Across the industry as a whole, there are more male columnists, editors, business journalists, political journalists and crime reporters than there are female.

Because of the nature of their work, they are typically given a higher profile by their employer, promoted more enthusiastically in the front page blurbs, and therefore more likely to appear on the discussion panels of current affairs shows on radio and television.

And so the cycle continues.

Inevitably, much of this is down to choice on the part of the journalists themselves - I’m one who never laboured under the desire to be a political correspondent or a business reporter.

But it’s not enough to dismiss it as simply a question of choice when, sometimes, the choices made by women are not much of a choice at all.

I was forced to think about this recently when I was invited to take part in a conference organised by the National Women’s Council.

The conference examined the question of how women are represented by and in the media.

Beforehand, I dug out some recent statistics compiled by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF),which showed that two-thirds of senior management jobs in the global media are held by men - though women hold 41 per cent of writing and editing jobs. So why weren’t they getting the top positions?

I didn’t have to look far for a case study. In a piece of apposite timing, the day before the conference, I had resigned my job as editor of the online news site,

When I had been offered the job a year before, it seemed ideal: the opportunity to get involved in an exciting media start-up, and to put my stamp on a new and innovative online news site.

There were some considerations - well, there were two chief considerations, then aged three and two. But my employer was understanding and flexible, and my husband was heroically hands-on, so I figured we’d work it out.

In practice, ‘‘working it out’’ meant getting up at 5.30am five days a week in order to be at my desk at 6.30am, where I would work for five hours straight, before getting back in the car and hurtling across town to pick my two children up from Montessori.

At home in the afternoons, I became a master at the art of sending surreptitious e-mails while playing in the sand table, or pushing a swing. As soon as my husband got home to take over at 6pm or 7pm, I was back on the laptop or the iPad for a couple of hours, before collapsing exhausted into bed. I worked almost every Sunday, and juggled a number of other work commitments.

 Photo by Jennifer O'Connell

But while the site went from strength to strength, I struggled.

My two-year-old was on his first year in Montessori and was regularly sick.

I saw less and less of my friends. I was constantly guilty and always tired. I invented a new game called 'The Cinema', which involved closing the shutters and putting on a DVD while we all collapsed on the sofa.

Meanwhile, a third of my part-time salary went on tax, a third was the exact equivalent of the mortgage and the remaining third went to pay my brilliant childminder - who was so fabulous I hardly ever begrudged the fact that she was earning as much into her hand at the end of the day as I was.

Earlier this year, my by-now four-year-old stood up during The News at school and announced that She had a ‘‘very lazy Mummy - she always needs to sleep’’, before agonisingly twisting the knife with the qualification that ‘‘luckily, my Daddy’s not lazy at all’’.

On the upside, I became a master in the art of multi-tasking.

On the Sunday night the government held a press conference to announce that Ireland would be seeking a bailout from the IMF, I sat in front of my TV tweeting it live, not even missing a beat when the two-year-old, who had pneumonia, ran into the room and vomited all over the floor.

Something had to give.

And so, a month or so ago, I made the difficult decision that I had reached my own, entirely self-imposed glass ceiling, and resigned my job.

Perhaps if I'd had a less demanding role, or grandparents living around the corner, or a network of nannies, au pairs and friends close by, I'd have managed. Maybe if the job had come along five years earlier or five years later, it might have worked. Certainly, if either my husband or I had been able to be home for one or two full days a week, or to work from home more often, it would have been easier.

As it was, he uncomplainingly took on responsibility for breakfast and one school run every day, was home to oversee bedtime every weeknight, and did more than his equal share at weekends and when they were ill. But it was never quite enough.

Because in the end, the responsibility that came with being editor of a 24/7 news site was simply incompatible with the other responsibilities I’m lucky enough to have in life. I was no longer merely juggling; I was struggling.

I don’t plan on disappearing into a cloud of self-raising flour and a flurry of play dates - not that that’s an entirely unattractive prospect  - and I don’t foresee a future writing colourful village sketches or exploring the world of home handiwork.

I will still be involved with the site, just not in the day-to-day running of it, and I’ll concentrate on developing my other professional commitments - including my column for The Sunday Business Post, my blog, and my radio and TV work.

I was brought up in a generation which believed not just that we could have it all, but that we were obliged to have it all. But it took having it all for me to realise that it was a lot less fun than it sounds.

This is an edited version of a piece which first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on May 22, 2011


  1. this was a great piece to read and is an indication of your strength as an individual and mother. Both yourself and herself will get the benefit from this and you can rebalance (or unbalance) your life again in years to come when she is more independent. It will happen quicker than you would wish for.


  2. Well done, you did it. Twice.
    The way I see it is that maybe it's not all about you, but about the now little people who will look back in 20, 30 or 50 years and cherish the golden time spent with their Mother. They, and you, are lucky.

  3. Excellent piece. Almost all mums I know right now are struggling with the same issue, and everyone has a different answer, and no two are the same. Good luck!

  4. I'm not surprised that this piece has touched a chord with people. As I saw someone else comment on Twitter in response to this article, an awful lot of people are struggling to juggle work and family. The honesty in how you've described your own struggle resonates with the real-life day to day experiences of an awful lot of parents.

    On top of that, your point about how having it all is not as much fun as it sounds crystalises the dilemma that trying to balance family and career can be for some people. I can see how this piece would help some people to realise that chosing to prioritise their family just might be the right thing for them.

    Great piece of writing.

  5. Great article. People interpret the phrase "You can have it all!" as tacitly ending in the words "right now and all at the same time!", which is daft when you think about it. Right now, you can't have it all, just the most important stuff. But maybe over the period of a life you can have it all (for a given value of "all"). When you figure out how to do this without feeling a parental and/or vocational guilt trip on all fronts however, please let the rest of us know.

  6. Hi all,

    Thanks so much for the comments and the encouragement. I've been blown away by the volume of response to this topic on Twitter, by email and even on the phone, so it's obviously touched a nerve - and, refreshingly, not just with women.

    @Keith and Michéal - thank you both.

    @Elana, you're absolutely right. I've given this issue a lot of thought this week, and have come to the conclusion that it IS possible to have it all - as long you decide what 'all' is, and allow for the fact that it might change and adapt over the years.

    @Ciaran - thank you again. I think the point is that deciding to allow your career to come second to your family doesn't have to feel like a permanent decision - and maybe that's where employers (and a parent's colleagues) come in too.

    Since I'm a journalist, it's easier for people to understand that I'm not "giving up", just moving into a different phase - I'm fortunate to be in one of the few industries where flexibility is the norm.

    @draziraphale - you might have taken the words right out of my mouth. Over the period of your life you can and should have it all - just don't try to do it all at once.

    I'm still trying to figure out how to achieve a reasonable work-life balance and cope with the various kinds of guilt, but then guilt kind of goes with the territory when you're a parent.

    It's clear - I think - from my own situation, from many conversations with my friends over countless bottles of wine, and again from the reaction to this piece - that this is no longer seen as a woman's issue or the mother's problem.

    Which is great. Now we just need to make it the employer's problem too.

    I think the solution probably lies in more flexible working situations becoming the norm rather than the exception, for parents and non-parents, and for men as much as women.

    I was really lucky to have an extremely flexible employer at thejournal, but I still felt like I must have been testing everyone's patience when I had to ring (again) and arrange to work from home because my child was sick (again.)

    Until such flexibility becomes the norm in all companies and all industries, it'll always be difficult and guilt-inducing.

    Thanks for the contributions everyone.


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