What age is deemed too old for a woman to return to work after a career break?

Apparently it is forty. So I have been reliably and rather bluntly informed this week by a head hunter.

Actually, the way he phrased it (“can I ask you a delicate question”) made him (note, ‘him’) come across as conspiratorially in my camp. He backed this up with declarations of his honesty and desire to minimise my disappointment in rejection.

My response followed a vague timeline of emotions.

The initial response was a typically British manner of apologetic embarrassment. I am terribly sorry to be wasting your precious time when you could be speaking to a more worthy (younger) candidate; do please forgive my imposition.

This was probably concurrent with the second (or joint first) sense of shock. It had never crossed my mind that I might be deemed technically over the hill when I am hell-bent on still viewing myself as in my thirties.

Which leads to my third reaction of defensiveness. Not wanting to labour the technicality but I am technically speaking still clinging on to the vestiges of my thirties, albeit by a few fingernails.

Calming the rising flush (not menopausal before you ask), I responded in a deliberately controlled tone, that surely a woman in her forties is no less employable than one in the 25-35 age bracket (his specified optimum hire-ability age range); posing the question, is it really better to hire someone likely to embark on a career break or someone returning from a career break? Neither of whom deserve to be discriminated against for heeding the call of nature to reproduce.

Mr Headhunter, not enjoying the direction of conversation, proceeded to chivy along the call to a close. I offered him my contact details (again) in the hope of being considered for any future roles that arise, which he was polite enough not to decline. Whether or not he even jotted them down I don’t know. Hastily wishing me luck in my future ventures (a true indicator that I shall not hear from him any time soon with any job offerings) he hung up.

With the passing of adequate hours to stew over the accusation and implication that a five or so year career hiatus, combined with being on the precipice of my Big Four-Oh, renders me ultimately redundant and unemployable, now gives rise to a sense of injustice. A twelve year career reduced to scrap fodder.

Would a man having taken a similar break be deemed equally unfit? I can’t answer that.

Despite the ongoing talk of encouraging women back into the workplace, the evidence is glaring that there is a long way to go. Mindsets need to evolve and embrace not just the notion of mothers reintegrating into careers they spent hard years building, but also the reality.

It is no new news that women are breaking glass ceilings left, right and centre, as the business pages tirelessly and tantalisingly remind us. And certainly there is nothing new about women engendering the next generation. But if depicted in my six year old’s Venn Diagram, I wonder how big the overlap set would be? And if we added a third hypothetical circle, ‘women who take a career break to raise a family’ to the diagram as a subset of ‘women who have children’, how would that affect the overlap? (Note Diagram is for purely hypothetical illustrative purposes and is not based on scale nor statistics).

Answers on a postcard.

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I had a dream… I was tattooed to the hilt

This article was first published on 6 April 2011 on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/04/06/my-new-tattoos/

More specifically, I was sporting the ‘sleeve’ tattoo equivalent on both my legs (technically could they be referred to as ‘trouser leg’ tattoos?).

There is no doubt that this dream is entirely induced by the continual and compulsive viewing of ‘Prison Break’ that I have recently undertaken. For those unfamiliar, it is a drama series featuring the dreamy Wentworth Miller (Mensa-level intelligence coupled with Adonis looks – what’s not to like?) and charts his attempts at, as the title suggests, breaking out of prison. His secret weapon is the prison building blueprint he has tattooed across his entire upper body, like a long sleeved T-shirt.

I have no idea what guise the tattoos covering my legs came in as the shock of indelibly branding myself in such an un-middle class way woke me up instantly in a cold sweat.

I have nothing against tattoos per se; nor against the people sporting them. In the manner of sartorial freedom of choice it is no skin off my nose whether my neighbour has a daily dress code of leopard print or twinset and pearls. My aversion to tattoos is on a more personal level – I have never and would never consider one for myself. The permanence is too unsettling. How can one guarantee that the Chinese/ Sanskrit/ Arabic characters interspersed with some tribal art, that was deemed so universally cool in our university backpacking days, might not date in the manner of ’80s shoulder pads?

Some women are addicted to body art the way most of their peers can’t resist the latest ‘it’ bag. For most though, one tattoo usually suffices to sate the rebellious streak. It will serve as a reminder of that point in their life like a scar, whether a moment of drunken impulse or a sentimental dedication to some long lost love, whose name is now probably anathema.

At the height of the tattooing popularity sweeping through my contemporaries, most victims fell into one of two camps: the emblem (rose, dolphin, lizard, dragon, flower etc etc) on the lower back, versus the Chinese characters, most memorably ‘girl power’ (the Spice Girls have a lot to answer for) on the upper arm. Even Samantha Cameron it appears wasn’t immune and bears her dolphin as a relic of her youth, albeit tactfully discrete below her ankle.

As for me, a henna version was more than adequate to quench my tats thirst. Even then I couldn’t quite decide whether it looked boho chic or simply chav-tastic and was more than happy for it to fade to oblivion. Perhaps I am more prone to ambivalence than most and indeed there could be a whole host of grannies out there still enamoured by their body art, no matter how distorted by gravity’s pull on sagging skin. I wholeheartedly salute them.

As for everyone else, unless you have a supremely strong reason for it (for instance, as a means for breaking out of prison), the temporary tattoo might prove a filling taster.

Handbags at Dawn

This article was first published on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/02/16/handbags-at-dawn/ on 16 February 2011.

In the bygone era of my banking days, I was once hailed as the Imelda Marcos of handbags.
Today, while walking past the local Waitrose, furiously conducting an internal debate over this evening’s  dinner options (is spagbol twice in a week too much?), I glanced in the window to spot a familiar face. She was looking a tad bedraggled with a hint of the disorganised madwoman about her and she was carrying a rather limp looking nylon handbag of Le Sportsac variety. Then I realised it was me.
It strikes me that I am a long way (geographically, mentally and most evidently, sartorially) from the Birkin-toting self of yore. My footwear is a rotating cycle of Ugg boots/ FitFlop Mukluks/ trainers – a good three inches lower than the de rigeur uniform of towering heels, scaling the corporate ladder. Rosa Klebb dagger was optional but useful in disposing of the opposition especially during bonus season.
Recent years have seen my arm candy of choice reduced to the hideous Le Sportsac (which doubles as a nappy bag) and a wipe clean PVC Cath Kidston number. Suddenly I am pining for my 2.55 (aka Chanel, for the handbag heathens out there). Notwithstanding the fear of a small child defacing a bag worth more than a small car.
I practically run home, almost mowing down a couple of pensioners in the process, sprint up the stairs to the attic where, gathering dust, resides a box marked ‘handbags’. Tearing it open, I discover they are nestled alongside two other long lost friends I haven’t seen in far too long; namely, freedom and independence.
So I have vowed to sling on an impractical but beautiful bag and strap on some killer heels the next time I am not doing the nursery run/ performing a supermarket sweep/ chasing children round a playground. As for my dear friends, freedom and independence, they have been lovingly laid back to rest in the attic for another few years.

Tiger tiger burning bright… here to give your child a fright

This article was first published on 20 January 2011 on http://life.hereisthecity.com/2011/01/20/tiger-tiger-shining-bright/

Oh how this media circus surrounding Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, or more specifically, her child rearing philosophy, must be helping her Amazon stats!
Being inadvertently the offspring of a ‘Tiger Mother’ (of sorts – she was coincidentally born in the Year of the Tiger but that’s by the by), has instigated innocent inquiries by the truckload at the nursery gates regarding my stance on the issue. With narrow-eyed  suspicion, the underlying question is, ‘Am I a closet control freak with borderline child abuse tendencies? And if so, may I please retract last week’s invite for a playdate’.
My reply would make a politician proud; discretely adopting a different angle to cater to the appropriate audience. Say, in response to mum who still co-sleeps with her as yet un-toilet trained three year old, I laugh off Ms Chua’s philosophy as just an exaggeration of any conceivable reality. But in the spotlight of mum who has slept with a copy of her Gina Ford bible under her pillow since her pregnancy tested positive and is not altogether against the theory of corporal punishment, I am willing to concede Ms Chua has me wondering how best to utilise her technique with my own children.
In the aftermath of the consumerism that epitomises Christmas, my two year old was dutifully making a mountain of Thank You cards. A few cards in and probably already bored at the tedium of drawing a big smiley face under the stick-on googly eyes, she rebelliously scrawled and defaced the next card. Not quite as severe as Ms Chua’s throwing it back in her face and declaring it ‘rubbish’ approach, I did deem it substandard and suitable only for some distant relation, too distant to judge her (me) on my, ahem, her, artistic abilities.
As we resumed the card-making production line, I wondered whether any unintentional criticism is an assault on my daughter’s self-esteem and rather, should I err on the side of caution and deem her every effort worthy of a Turner Prize. Because that is invariably the way of the modern western world: confidence is boosted to the point of delusion. How else does Simon Cowell ensure a steady stream of willing fools convinced of their X factor status?
The dirty truth is that I do want the best for my babies. Who can argue with that? Growing up, my Tigress of a mother ranted relentlessly about the importance of doing myself justice in life. I strived to be the best (refused to partake if I wasn’t haha) and achieved straight As (pre the A* era) throughout my school years .  While I may not have engaged in the fun of my friends smoking, snogging and downing Diamond White behind the bike sheds, I don’t feel remotely deprived.
I don’t condone ruling with a rod of iron and whipping children into high achieving automatons but, being a mother myself now (Tigress status to be confirmed), I do believe in encouraging our future generations to be the best within their ability. There is a risk that in this age of plenty we lose sight of instilling an appreciation for opportunities taken for granted, encouraging a squandering mentality.
Ms Chua may well engender the Marmite love it or hate it response in the manner of a Gina Ford technique for our older offspring but as Gina fans know, there is method in her madness!

Jostling with the Jobless at the Local Gym REDUX

 

[This article was first published on 12th May 2009, on http://life.hereisthecity.com/get_cultured/entertainment/culture/950.cntns]

I stand corrected. It is NOT just the jobless I am jostling with for treadmill time (see previous post: Jostling with the Jobless at the Local Gym); it appears I am now rubbing shoulders with royalty down at my local authority sports centre.

Well, not royalty in reality but The Queen in her best onscreen guise – yes, none other than Dame Helen herself. I have always thought myself above celebrity worship, or even mere curiosity. But such tangible proximity to the grande dame of drama unleashed my inner Hello!-reading, Celebrity Big Brother-watching alter ego.

In the manner of an incompetent stalker, I surreptitiously watched with interest her every move, while feigning interest in the BBC news on the screen in front of me and trying to stay pace with the tireless treadmill. Unlike me, her pursuits of the morning appeared to be anaerobic, moving from one toning machine to the next (explaining those legendary bikini shots last year), all the while toting an ill-disguised open script.

I say ‘script’ but I could be wrong: A4, dog eared, bound together in a ‘this is not commercially available in print’ sort of way, with the text set out in the style of higgledy piggledy dialogue rather than blocks of text typical of more mundane manuscripts. Overcome with zealous obsession wrought by months of the unextraordinary, I harnessed my gossip girl within.

Seizing my chance when she ventured to the mat to stretch and ab-exercise, I ambled over. I considered commending her on her Oscar winning performance in the role of HRH but for the small issue that I have not actually seen it. Instead I tried to sneak a rather indiscrete peek at her script (MI5 covert mission this was not) while assuming the pretense of fumbling with a disproportionately large swiss ball.

Somewhere amidst contorting myself to ascertain the gist of her reading material, I seem to have lost sight of her presence – she abruptly snatched the script from my line of vision, dragging my gaze with it; breaking my precariously balanced pose and leaving me in an ungainly heap on the mat, swiss ball rolling to an exit to the right.

So it appears even dames are reigning in the spending in these spartan times; after all how better to convey sympathy for the poor populace than to join them? And if it’s good enough for a dame then who is a lowly out of work banker to complain? And one more thing, Ms Mirren, may I please applaud you on looking jolly marvellous – even in a Mickey Mouse T shirt and no makeup.

The other R word

[This article was first published on 1st May 2009, on http://life.hereisthecity.com/the_soul_clinic/at_work/941.cntns.]

First Redundancy and now Rejection – numbering in excess of the fingers I can count. On both hands.

I am learning (the hard way) that getting writing published is more onerous than pinning down a job in banking – and in this era of financial Armageddon, that really holds some considerable weight.

Once upon a time, in a moment of whimsical aberration, a bright(ish), young twentysomething fancifully decided it would be jolly fun to join the banking clique. She’d been a long time hearing of its bountiful bonuses hanging from every gilded tree, like low hanging fruit ripe for the picking by any ambitious, industrious go-getter. So she decided to see for herself and indeed endeavour to ‘go get’ some of the tempting fruit from the ‘Pick Your Own’ Garden of Financial Eden. In a surprisingly short space of time – mere months and half a dozen interviews of soul-bartering haggling later, she sold her soul for membership of the Square Mile sect.

Misguidedly she assumed that having attained membership, the subsequent process of picking and eating would be as taxing as a stroll through Cloud Nine. As it turned out, the Garden was prone to long bouts of famine, tempered only with fleetingly brief periods of feasting. And even the short-lived feasting would be a time of upheaval; hungry hoards battling for morsels of the transient banquet. Membership eventually expired with little notice; her now worthless soul flung back at her from the powers that be – having sucked it of its life blood.

So once more, the For Sale sign is being pinned to my soul. The resell value, as with a second hand car, well below the original untarnished version. This time, I am attempting to peddle my unworthy wares to the publishing posse, who so far seem marginally more discerning than their banking brothers, spurning my every awkward advance. As I battle on through my ‘death by a thousand paper (rejection letter) cuts’, it dawns on me that if banking has taught me one thing then it is the virtue of thick skin.

Jostling with the jobless at the local gym

[This article was first published on 16 April 2009, on http://life.hereisthecity.com/sound_off/928.cntns]

One of the first things to go, in my post-redundancy existence, were my multiple gym memberships – one had inspirational instructors, a spa, pool and a really good masseuse called David; another was within spitting distance of my desk and allowed me the unparalleled privilege of sweating, spinning and sparring alongside my colleagues. In exchange, I now have just the one membership – at the local authority sports centre (oh how the mighty have fallen). Goodbye to sun salutations in a swanky yet serene surround.

In an attempt to redeem myself from a weekend of frenzied Easter egg eating, I am enduring the drudgery that epitomises pounding the treadmill miles. Observing those around me in the similar pursuit of physical exertion, I realise that the men outnumber the women with a ratio of at least 6 to 1. In the weights area, there is no need for random ratio guesstimates – it is a mass of men and not one representative from the female camp.

So actually the ratios are a bit like those found on the average investment bank trading floor; though the ratio in the weights area is more resonant of the IT help desk. And indeed the average City gym echoes these gender biases.

It occurs to me, while still on my mindless mission to nowhere, that there really is no huge difference between the testosterone-fuelled muscle mania in this less than salubrious local authority fitness establishment, in the heart of the East End, versus its infinitely more plush City counterpart. Regardless of which end of this diametrically opposed spectrum you take, both are essentially filled with members of the male species intent on proving the potency of their physical prowess and pumping weights with a vigour and vanity to rival the model on the cover of Men’s Health.

Another observation gleaned over the months and miles spent on this treadmill is that in the hours of the week typically associated with work, there is a surprisingly constant flow of fitness-seeking faces. The audible grunts from red-faced, vein-popping weight lifters continues unabated. I can only assume that these are my fellow jobless casualties of an economy teetering on the brink. On second glance the majority don’t strike me as City types, past or current. If they were revealed to be local gang members this wouldn’t be entirely unbelievable.

For not wholly unselfish reasons I am hoping for an imminent end to the pesky job cuts over in the City – the prospect of queuing for my turn on the hamster wheel is a dreary one. Still, out here it’s more common to take to the streets for a proper bout of fistee cuffs, rather than in the cosseted confines of the gym with padded gloves and a personal trainer paid to dole out enthusiastic boot camp style encouragement. The average macho (ex)banker might find this real Fight Club rather illuminating. Plus, a street fight doesn’t need an upfront joining fee – though at the same time, it’s not followed by a steam room session, a massage and Molton Brown toiletries to boot.