Friday 16 August 2013

The battle for a woman's working soul

New research from the US shows that mums are crying out for flexible jobs. Hulafrog, a network of US parenting sites, co-founded by my friend Kerry Bowbliss, recently surveyed more than 2,000 mothers on the thorny issue of working full-time or staying at home with the kids. The results find that 65% of the women would prefer to work part-time as an ideal career choice, while only 9% would prefer to work full-time. Some 59% would also be willing to earn less money if it meant they could work flexibly. "No suprise that moms want flexibility," says Kerry. "But it still surprises me that there aren't more flexible opportunities available." 

Kerry Bowbliss, co-founder and chief publisher, Hulafrog
Kerry's company Hulafrog offers flexible work
There has been much chatter about women and work on the internet recently after The New York Times Magazine ran a feature on stay-at-home moms trying to opt back into their careers. This was a follow-up to another NY Times feature written 10 years ago about a generation of elite, super-educated women who chose to "opt out" from their careers in order to raise children at home. Here is an excerpt from the most recent NY Times article:
This magazine, in a cover article by Lisa Belkin, called the phenomenon of their leaving work the “Opt-Out Revolution,” and other coverage followed: a Time magazine cover story on “The Case for Staying Home” and a “60 Minutes” segment devoted to a group of former mega-achievers who were, as the anchor Lesley Stahl put it, “giving up money, success and big futures” to be home with their children.

At the time, these women attracted criticism for turning their back on feminism. Now - shock, horror - some of these same mega-achievers are looking to get back into the job market. A few working mothers have pointed the finger and said, I told you so. To me this overlooks an obvious point: these women have been out for 10 years. Now their children have grown up and become less dependent. The time is ripe for a return to work. I doubt any of them would have ruled out a resumption of their careers when they decided 10 years ago to look after their children. 

This chop-and-change approach goes against the prevailing trend of 'leaning in'. Sheryl Sandberg's much-publicised book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, argues that women are unconsciously compromising their career goals, even before they have children:
In addition to the exterior barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in... We lower our expectations of what we can achieve.
It is a powerful message, exhorting women to try harder in their careers, but as Hulafrog's survey demonstrates, there are many more women who would prefer a middle way between "opting out" and "leaning in". 

The founders of Hulafrog - Kerry, chief publisher, and CEO Sherry Lombardi - passionately believe there are not enough flexible opportunities for women. This is what motivated them to go to their parent subscribers and ask about the "age-old issue that haunts moms from pre-school pick-up lines to corporate boardrooms: work full-time or stay at home with the kids?" They were overwhelmed by the response.

Among other things, they discovered that a staggering 57% of stay-at-home moms would have continued to work if they had been offered the ability to work from home. "Think of what our workforce is missing," says Kerry. "All the educated, professional women who are sitting on the sidelines because they haven't been able to find the flexibility they need." (See my previous post on this untapped workforce.)

The debate surrounding women, work and children will always be emotive, depending on which side of the fence you sit. However, in a modern age we should strive for an ideal that suits all types, including the option of flexible work hours or working from home. Employers need to sit up and take notice. More than 2,000 women have spoken. Have a look at Hulafrog's Infographic on the subject and see for yourself.


Further links

Hulafrog's press release on the survey
Lisa Belkin's NY Times feature on opting out
Judith Warner's NY Times feature on opting back in
Lisa Belkin's recent article in The Huffington Post
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Friday 2 August 2013

A life in books

Review: A private collection of books once owned by the novelist Elizabeth Taylor provides a rare insight into her life.

Elizabeth Taylor’s avowed aversion for adventure, coupled with a horror of publicity, goes some way to explaining why her talent as a writer remains underrated. Writing just after the second-world war, Taylor impressed many of her contemporaries, including Kingsley Amis, but fell into relative obscurity towards the end of her career.

The novel, A Wreath of Roses, by Elizabeth Taylor
"Taylor's marvellous, dark novel"
An excerpt from the jacket of her novel A Wreath of Roses shows an author who confined herself to the domestic dramas of middle England, much in the tradition of Jane Austen. “I hate ‘adventure,’ ‘experience,’ [I] can never make any use of them or assimilate them," she said. "Change disrupts me and I cannot write. [People] are my only adventure and I hope never to have any others.”

Despite these rather prissy sentiments, she was in the words of her contemporary, Rosamond Lehmann, “sophisticated, sensitive and brilliantly amusing, with a kind of stripped, piercing feminine wit.” Her nuanced prose could ridicule a character’s folly and then subvert the reader’s response with a poignant twist of sympathy.

Taylor’s early success, beginning with the publication of At Mrs Lippincote’s in 1945, coincided with the rise of her more famous namesake, making it difficult for her to attract due recognition. (The writer once received fan letter requesting a photograph of her in a bikini – with customary wit she remarked this was not possible since she did not own one.) The centenary of Taylor’s birth last year has helped to rehabilitate her work, including her twelve novels – one shortlisted for the 1971 Booker prize – and dozens of short stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker magazine.

A dedication in the novel, Palladian, by Elizabeth Taylor
John owned a
confectionary company

Despite a quiet life in Buckinghamshire with her husband John and two children, Taylor was dedicated to her art and developed intense friendships with other writers. Notwithstanding an early and passionate affair, her relationship with her husband was based on mutual respect and she inscribes a dedication copy of her novel Palladian to him. 

She also enjoyed a fulsome correspondence with authors E. B. White, a fellow contributor to The New Yorker, Elizabeth Bowen and William Maxwell, her editor at The New Yorker. A rare collection of Taylor’s own books, sold by her son Renny last year, offers a tantalizing glimpse into these relationships.

Amongst the collection is a first edition of E. B. White’s children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, which Taylor read aloud to her grandchildren. An inscription from White, who stored his manuscripts in old whiskey cartons, bears a private joke: "and I do like whiskey."

An inscription from E.B. White in the children's story, Charlotte's Web
A private joke?

In another inscribed book – The Second Tree from the Corner – White describes himself as Taylor’s “grateful reader,” a sign of their esteem for one another. Taylor’s son says his mother rarely travelled to the United States, but fostered her friendship with White through a long and frequent correspondence. Like Taylor, White valued his privacy, often slipping out of his office via the fire-escape to avoid meeting visitors.

In the same collection, an inscribed copy of Bowen’s Court, an account by Elizabeth Bowen of her beloved home in County Cork, Ireland, speaks of a more intimate friendship. Inserted at the back of the book are clippings of Bowen’s 1973 obituaries snipped out, presumably, by Taylor herself who once wrote how she “worshipped” her friend. Taylor stayed with Bowen in Ireland, both of them working companionably on their respective projects. Bowen’s book remains, among other things, a memorial to “the authority of light and quiet” around the house, which served as a retreat to many of her artistic cronies.

Elizabeth Taylor’s collection of books stands as a similar monument to a writer’s life. Their personal inscriptions hint of experiences enhanced by her adventures with people – friends as well as characters in her novels.

This article was first published as a blog post for Jonkers Rare Books, a purveyor of fine books and first editions. Based in Henley-on-Thames, Jonkers specialises in collecting nineteenth and twentieth century literature, as well as children's and illustrated books.