2012 and still we ask: Can women have it all?

2012-08-04 15:39

Five women in top jobs reveal what it took to be top mothers too

More than 50 years after the rise of feminism, it has come to this: an international debate raging about whether or not women can have a family and a successful career.

The argument was reignited last month by a cover story in the prestigious American magazine, The Atlantic, written by Ivy League professor Anne-Marie Slaughter and titled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.

Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University, quit her prestigious job as head of policy planning at the US state department – she was the first woman appointed to the post – to spend time with her teenage sons, one of whom was going off the rails.

Her women friends and colleagues were appalled, with some saying she had betrayed the hard-won gains made by those who’d gone before her.

Slaughter believes that for more women to have it all – or more of it – workplaces need to make radical shifts.

Employees should be allowed to work flexible hours and from home some of the time.

“Time machos”, who define job commitment by endless hours behind an office desk, need to chill.

 Crucially, men need to be co-opted into the struggle.

In celebration of Women’s Day on Thursday, City Press asked some of South Africa’s most prominent mothers if they have it all, and how their sisters could have it too.

What SA’s working mothers say:

1. Tina Joemat-Pettersson

Joemat-Pettersson, now minister of agriculture, had her babies in the early 2000s during her second term as Northern Cape education MEC.

No mention was made of maternity leave in the ministerial handbook, and she had to hire two nannies on split shifts to travel with her.

“My female colleagues were harsher about whether or not I could get maternity leave.

"Then education minister Kader Asmal told me I was very courageous to have children in office.

"I thought that was sexist.”

The nannies and a supportive husband allowed her to have it all for a time. But when the boys were three and five their father died.

“I had to come to terms with their grief and my loss. In Kimberley, they had a family to support them.

“Relocating to a national post has been traumatic,” Joemat-Pettersson says of her promotion to Cabinet three years ago.

“Often I leave early and come home late, when they

are already asleep ... Who cares about staying in fancy hotels if you

just want a jam and peanut butter sandwich with your children?”

Joemat-Pettersson hired an old university friend to be their stand-in mom.

She does her best to attend parents’ meetings for which her sons insist

she must wear “mommy clothes, not work clothes” and leave her bodyguards


Any regrets?

She wishes she’d taken the holidays she was entitled to.

“Instead of working holidays I now shut off. I owe it to them.”

2. Professor Helen Rees

Professor Helen Rees has more letters behind her name than most alphabets.

Her 19 titles include executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and chair of the World Health Organisation’s strategic advisory group of experts on immunisation.

She’s also the proud mother of three highly successful children, the eldest of whom is a Rhodes scholar.

“I think if having it all is defined by a successful career and meaningful relationships with your children, then yes you can,” she says.

The key is being clear about your priorities “so that you don’t feel guilty about what you’re not doing”.

Rees ensured regular “points of contact” with her children.

“The first was on the way to school. There was no lift club as I wanted to talk to them on the way."

“The second was in the evenings. I would never ever

work when I got home, until they went to bed. And then I would start

working again.”

Working mothers, she says, have to make peace with what they can’t do.

“You’re not going to be the mom that the school knows the best. You have to set rules for yourself and stick to them.”

Rees made weekends count, and packed them with activities and laughter.

She says we need a national conversation about how to enable women to have careers while being good mothers.

“You can have fun while doing it. And laugh.”

3. Advocate Thuli Madonsela

As a single mother of two, the public protector has never had it all.

“I think married women, or women with partners, can have it all. It really depends on the other party,” she said.

“But if you are single it is a very delicate balance. In the early part of my career, I did more for my work, and I didn’t spend a lot of time with them.”

Madonsela, whose son is now 23 and daughter 20, depended largely on her mother and “household help”.

But when her children were eight and five, her mother passed away, followed by their father.

“Their father, before he passed on, was very supportive. Even though he didn’t stay with us, he would make sure he came to parents’ evenings and was someone to talk to. I really did struggle,” she says.

Madonsela, who worked long hours, brought her children to work in the evenings “because I wanted them to see me and be around me”, she says.

“There were those who complained that there were kids running around the

office. But there were those who played with them, like Justice Edwin

Cameron,” she said.

She believes options like flexitime and working from home help, “but

that can only work with people of integrity and a good performance

management system that measures output rather than hours spent in the


Would she do anything differently?

“I would attend their sports matches. I did attend their concerts and

prize-givings but I didn’t think the sports events were that important,”

she says.

4. General Riah Phiyega

The national police commissioner – mother of two girls, now 25 and 20, and grandmother of one – says having it all is a fine balancing act.

“I realised that I couldn’t have it all my way,” she says.

So she employed two domestic “helpers” who have been with her for more than 10 years and who are “very, very important in my life,” she says.

“It is important for me to care for them and their families to ensure they take the same care of me and mine.”

Phiyega, who has been married for 27 years, says her husband’s support was crucial.

“He’s also on a career path, and we support each other.

"We have ensured that when I’m travelling abroad, he is at home.”

Her advice? “Don’t compromise. Make sure you deliver at work. But don’t live your life according to others’ agenda ... you can’t compromise your family and you shouldn’t,” she says.

“I would take my children to board meetings. If

they scheduled meetings after hours, I would tell them I would come but

that my child was coming with me.

" And I would sit her down and tell her that mommy is having a meeting now, and she would get on with her toys and books.”

Workplaces, Phiyega says, could be “more accommodating” of mothers by

having childcare facilities and “understanding it is okay for women to

duck out” of the office to fetch their children if they have to.

“If a man leaves work it’s fine, but if a woman leaves, people frown.”

5. Terry Volkwyn

The Primedia chief executive is one woman for whom having it all has come with a great deal of planning – and support.

Her husband works from home, her parents live on her property and she has a housekeeper and a nanny to see to her two girls, aged 13 and 16. Everything is structured around her career.

Nevertheless, she is always home by 5pm and the family always has dinner together.

Volkwyn has consistently refused to attend early morning meetings, and the last she schedules for the day is at 4pm. Years ago, her male colleagues didn’t take it well.

“It didn’t make me very popular. It was a boys’ club and I was on the outside of it but I had my role and I did it well,” she says.

“I was not chummy with the senior team, but I worked quickly and did not take my lunch breaks. Occasionally when I wasn’t finished I’d work when my children went to bed.”

Volkwyn said there came a time when she and her husband had to decide who was going to stay at home.

“One of us had to make a call and my husband did, thank God,” she said.

“Having my husband at home has definitely enabled my career. Currently he’s out of action having had an operation, and I’ve already had my 13-year-old tell me: ‘When daddy fetches me he is never late!’”

She does regret that she wasn’t able to spend as much time as she would have liked with her children, and she admits to feelings of guilt.

“It was a conscious decision. I am the breadwinner.”

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