When work stops working

 

When Brenda Barnes, one of America's most powerful female executives, gave up a $2 million-a-year job with Pepsi-Cola to be a "soccer mom", the anti-feminist brigade chortled "we told you so". But Barnes (43) wasn't actually admitting defeat. The mother-of-three was simply acknowledging what many Irish professional women have already accepted, that the male-orientated career system doesn't work and that she was no longer going to sell her soul to make it work. The women's movement opened doors in the workplace, but now a new generation of women are questioning where those doors have led them. The question is no longer whether women can succeed in a man's world. We know they can. But do they want to be there?

It's the subject of a powerful new book by Elizabeth Perle McKenna (43), a publishing executive who gave up her 20-year career when she realised that she had sacrificed everything in order to allow herself to become utterly defined by a job which was no longer fulfilling. Having left college with "a death grip on the ladder of achievement" she played the game like a man only to suffer a traditional male mid-life crisis when her company was swallowed up and stripped of its identity in a series of mergers and reorganisations. "I found I was feeling less and less good about my accomplishments because they involved more and more trade-offs in some inner, deeper valuing system that lay hidden within me," she writes.

At the peak of her career, McKenna was devoting "28-hours a day" to her work and paying for a nanny to care for her new baby, while worrying that it was only a matter of time until they discovered she was a fraud . . . "I just couldn't get anything right, I felt, and my self-esteem was in the toilet from trying to be everything to everyone and ending up being nothing to myself."

McKenna quit her job and after the initial disorientation of being without a work identity, decided to write a book, inspired by a US survey which found that the women who had blazed trails into the corporate suites were blazing out: 87 per cent of female managers and executives wanted to make a major change in their lives, 40 per cent felt trapped and 60 per cent were in therapy.

McKenna interviewed 200 such women for her book, and discovered that it wasn't just working mothers who found their inner values in conflict with their exterior working lives. Single and childless women too were regretting having sold their souls to the system in exchange for a lifestyle where material rewards were ultimately not as satisfying as they had expected.

But far from being a story of defeat and depression, When Work Doesn't Work Any- more is a rallying cry for women to change the way they work to suit themselves. Telecommuting, working from home, flexitime, part-time work and the courage to stop work entirely for periods are all ways, McKenna urges, for women who love working to find the fulfilment of work - while also developing other aspects of their lives.

Nollaig Rowan, a psychologist who works with children in relation to learning and behaviour difficulties was a pioneer of the new way of working 11 years ago when she gave up full-time work following the birth of her twin sons. She has since had two girls, now aged nine and six. For the past decade she has resisted offers to work nine to five outside the home, opting instead to create a way of working which involves flexible hours on a part-time basis, changing her schedule as her family's circumstances alter. "What I have forfeited in my career is a permanent, pensionable contract and benefits such as superannuation. That's the quid pro quo and I don't grumble about it. It's a choice."

Nollaig sees no point in having two fulltime incomes, her own and her husband's, if that means having no time to enjoy the money. She stresses that their lifestyle is possible only because her husband, Charlie Downey, a civil engineer, also values what the family have to gain by Nollaig's choice.

And it's not only her children who benefit. More time away from work, means that Nollaig, who is in her early 40s, can find time to sing in a chamber choir and dabble in Tai Chi, jewellery-making and tennis. But the biggest plus is a well-rounded life. Women who have succeeded in finding new ways of working seem to have three things in common: a marketable skill which can be used from home, an ability to negotiate what they want and the confidence to refuse to become trapped in other people's ideas of success. They also tend to be middle and upper class.

Sinead Reynolds (38), who lives near Dalkey in Dublin, gave up a lucrative career as a manager in merchant banking when her second son was born three years ago. "It was not just about the children, it was about growth for me too," she says. "It was not so much quitting a job, as a transition to something which had more reality for me. I was moving to a more meaningful life. It was a big luxury to be able to do it and it was possible only because my husband (John Reynolds, also a merchant banker) has a stable income."

As a senior manager in merchant banking with a closetful of expensive power suits now gathering dust, Sinead travelled a lot, worked long hours and enjoyed it until she began to question the moral dimension of her moneyorientated career. So she moved to the voluntary sector, working for Focus Point for two years, but when her second child was born she had to face the fact that her working lifestyle was not compatible with family life.

It was frightening at first to let go of traditional work structures and to "float". "You realise that your sense of identity has to come very much from yourself rather than what you do. It's not about the badge of `merchant banker' anymore," she says.

Today she is based in the home, taking a counselling course with the aim that eventually she will be able to use her financial experience to advise in the voluntary sector.

Not all women are so privileged. "There are so many women who can't move to a meaningful life, women who must work and who need to keep going to stay in a nice house and give the kids an education," says Sinead.

Many women are being forced to continue working because double incomes have driven up house prices, so that two incomes are now required to pay the mortgage in many cases. Interestingly, McKenna's research found that women who genuinely must work to survive financially are less conflicted about work versus family than women who, if they admitted it, could do without the income if they were willing to give up some of the material aspects of success. Letting go of the status of a company car, an expensive wardrobe and restaurant lunches every day turned out to be easy for Leonie Brennan (37), who was in PR with Guinness and often worked nights and weekends even on bank holidays. Her husband, Neil Blackburn, a company director, was also working at least three nights each week.

Leonie was increasingly stressed as she found herself sandwiched between the demands of two sons, aged three and six, and the needs of ageing and infirm parents.

Leonie realised that her sons needed her more as they grew older, not less, and today she works as a freelance PR at home in the mornings, then collects her sons from school.

"My work is not as exciting as it was, but it's work and for me it's therapy. I spent 20 years building my career and I still have to work as a person," she says.

Women who work flexibly from home may seem to have the best of both worlds, but still others find that giving up work entirely is the best solution. "My sons are definitely happier now," says Patricia Bergin (35) who was working full-time as a solicitor when her second son Joseph was born. The financial sacrifice has not been as substantial as she had feared, partly because her husband, Dermot Horan, director of acquisitions in RTE, had just received a promotion when Patricia stopped working. "What's the point of racing around like a lunatic? Because it does take a toll eventually, on your relationship or your kids or your health," she says.

As McKenna eloquently argues, the future for women is not in so-called "equality" in the workplace, with women forcing themselves into out-dated forms based on male values and materialistic rewards. The future is in creating true equality through flexible working where the money may be less, but the personal rewards are higher - and ultimately men may learn from it.

If men follow women's lead, the most envied job perk of the future may not be an expensive company car, but time at home in the afternoon with the children.

When Work Doesn't Work Anymore by Elizabeth Perle McKenna, published by Simon & Schuster next week. Price £16.99 in the UK.