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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From Banking to Body Combat

This article was first posted on Here Is the City on 9 July 2013: http://hereisthecity.com/2013/07/10/from-banking-to-bodycombat/

I used to work in Banking – at times that was mentally tough. Now I’m exploring something physically tough. At the end of the day it’s all about throwing your weight around and winning the order/deal/fight (delete as applicable)!  Welcome to the jungle!

After two solid days of hardcore Les Mills BodyCombat instructor training, I can assure you that BodyCombat 56 definitely has the capacity to make you cry just a little!
DAY 1 was like a Body Combat marathon interspersed with technique drilling sessions – release 56 becoming the soundtrack to our lives. In emotion terms it went something like this (in no particular order):
(1) Paranoia – That I am the least competent person in the room owing to a total lack of training in either Les Mills courses or martial arts – What am I doing here when I could be at the beach with my family building sandcastles and eating ice cream?
(2) Excitement – Am I really going to be a certified Combat instructor? Whoop whoop!
(3) Self doubt – Not dissimilar to the paranoia and recurring sporadically throughout the day. Am I fit enough? Is my technique ever going to cut it? Why didn’t I opt for Body Attack or Body Pump which are at least in my comfort zone?
(4) Exhilaration – I haven’t had this much fun and felt this alive in so long. Who knew that all it takes is a bit of pain.
(5) Fear – Peaking just before stepping up to teach in front of (read ‘be scrutinised by’) everyone else.
(6) Dead tired – I’m not unaccustomed to a bit of exercise but this is in a whole league of its own. 9am to 6pm with teeny tiny breaks where I didn’t dare eat much knowing that the next cardio session was imminent and any food might make an unwelcome reappearance. At the same time knowing that if I didn’t eat enough I wouldn’t have the fuel to carry on! Oh the dilemma.
By end of the day, everything hurt; highlights being butt (from front/side/roundhouse kicking) and shoulders (from obviously punching). I’d sweated enough to fill a small reservoir and Combat training was seeping from every pore and brain cell. I LOVED IT!
DAY 2 I woke up feeling truly pummeled, creaking like an old lady!
I was nervous about being assessed but frankly the limited mobility in all my joints was more cause for concern. I taped up my dodgy knee more tightly than the day before to stop it from collapsing completely and, joy of joys, I was up first to be assessed! (Positive: no time to ponder and dread or make pointless mental comparisons with other participants. Negative: there’s a reason they send the lowest ranking officer in first
to do a recce.)
Twenty or so Combat tracks later came the cringeworthy task of watching a recording of myself teaching and having all my flaws rammed home. Then we broke for a brief fuel stop plus an opportunity to peel off some sweaty kit and rather pointlessly replace it with another set that would be no doubt saturated within the hour.
To ensure there was no one left who wasn’t crying yet, Steve (our lovely trainer) threw in a Grit Cardio session for good measure (it’s been a while since I’ve been on the receiving end of such compassion). My personal high point was the jump pushups.
And to round it all off when my muscles weren’t just crying but howling I had to teach my second assessment track and participate in another round of about two hours of Body Combat. In actual fact I had so much fun I didn’t want it to end. Steve was inspiring, encouraging and a truly awesome teacher – I’m not just saying that because I passed!
Now I just need to persuade our club to get the licence so I can teach it. As endorsement my 3 year old says I look just like Tree Fu Tom and that is praise indeed!

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.

Bye Bye Banking

[This article was first published on http://life.hereisthecity.com/sound_off/982.cntns, on 14th June 2009.] 

To pay my last respects to the 8 years of my life dedicated to the altar of investment banking, I ventured one last time to my old office.

Strictly speaking that’s not entirely a true statement – I dragged my heels grumbling and muttering grievances to deliver my signed severance contract because I was too tight-fisted to pay for a courier. After all, as Sir Alan has been highlighting on a regular basis to those unfamiliar (and his wannabe apprentices), these are testing times.

Furtively I scan the vista for any recognisable faces. Tucked away discretely, like a firearm, I have my well-rehearsed response to any awkward sympathetic offerings that may arise; ready to be whipped out, aimed and fired. It has not escaped me the way redundancy casualties are treated like victims of a taboo disease of questionable origin – with a certain uncomfortable demeanour and stilted conversation skirting incessantly around the actual ailment but without any direct reference to it. As luck would have it, altercations aren’t on the day’s agenda.

I am officially no longer an employee of the bank. Or indeed, of anything or anyone. Dare I say it; I am now officially unemployed. Not since the two months immediately following graduation from university can I claim the status of idle thumb twiddler; set to contribute a big fat doughnut to the nation’s tax revenue.

Instead of running from the building shouting ‘Free at last! Free at last!’ it is a decidedly low-key, muted affair (think Camilla and Charles’ wedding). Stepping beyond the doors for the final time, my 1 year old waves a farewell with more feeling than I can muster. Is it relief? Nostalgia? Sadness at the end of an era? The rush of memories of steps I trod thousands of times, in heels, flats, boots and sandals, season after season, year after year. The ghost of me lingers here like a small part my soul that I can’t reclaim.

Today is the day I redeemed my soul – but is a soul any more soulful employed in idle musings than soulless in an industry of alleged moral compromise? And what next now that I am no longer tethered to bureacracy? I hear Sir Alan is on the hunt for his next apprentice…

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.

‘Tis the Season to be Jolly (or not)

It’s that time of the year again; Bonus Season – the only difference is this year I won’t be participating in the thrills of Chinese whisper-esque wild speculation in B-Day preamble, nor in the disappointment/ ecstasy (delete as applicable) and post B-Day shopping frenzy that marks the highlight (and potential lowlight in this year’s case) of a banker’s 365 day cycle. This year, I can only reminisce. 

This is the defining moment that will determine whether the next 365 day cycle will be Gucci or Gap, Porsche or Punto, relocate or renovate. Like a Sliding Doors for bankers. For the past 8 years I have revelled in the up-cycle and commiserated with the great, and the not so great, in less fruitful times. Incidentally, some years have been positively impoverished.

So with the annual welcoming of a new year, there is always the simultaneous ushering in of a renewed fervour over the imminent receipt of the proverbial fat cheque that will subsidise forthcoming school fees, tropical getaways and the like. Our bonuses were usually announced in Jan/Feb. However, the bonus pot was typically agreed and divvied up (and mentally spent) by end-December, so December (November for the super keen) was prime brown-nose season. Coinciding, rather conveniently, with Christmas bashes of varying degrees of mirth and subsequently, varying degrees of brown noses.

Approximately half of the business year leading up to last year’s bonus had been plagued by the crunch; yet, the former half of said year was a fairly jolly, quids-in type of affair. There was talk ranging from a heart wrenching zero bonus, to a rather zealous 30% up (self delusion, a wonderful thing), and everything in between. Hours of paid time were whiled away discussing the multitude of possibilities. Even more hours were whiled away inputting fictitious guesstimates into the in-house model provided for employees to calculate what amount of any imagined bonus would be paid in normal shares vs better-than-normal shares vs cash in hand.

 Finally the day arrives. Everyone is sitting primed at their desk at a distinctly earlier hour than the usual unearthly hour; all ramrod straight, staring with immense concentration at their screens without a discernible twitch. No one speaks. The desk head has been holed up in a box meeting room on the 4th floor (which was booked months ahead by the secretary who had to fight tooth and nail for it – one year, all bonus meetings had to take place in Starbucks owing to an ineffectual secretary) since 5.30am. Then the summonses begin in earnest. One by one the pilgrimage to the 4th floor is made akin to a death march and, just as quickly, they each return, A4 envelope clutched in hand, each avoids eye contact and resumes the previous pose, blank demeanour betraying neither delight nor devastation. Someone’s gone a long time and for a moment we wonder whether they have gone for good as a demonstration of their disgust, but it turns out he simply got trapped in the lift going up one floor.  

Then my phone rings – it’s my turn. Would I like to call a friend? If only. I’m in and out in 5minutes max. Cut the small talk there’s only one figure anyone is remotely interested in. Blah blah blah, bad year, blah blah, want to reward our good employees, blah blah – aaaagghhh. I assume my poker-face (I’ve never played poker) throughout the entire proceeding; automatically recite my rehearsed disappointment speech (as I did the year before and the year before that) then make a sharp exit. I make a beeline for the ladies loos as always, lock myself in a cubicle, review the paperwork (one boss told me the wrong salary figure one year – seriously), then compose myself accordingly. The first year I broke my self-imposed mental glass ceiling I jumped up and down in my cubicle doing a silent scream. This time really wasn’t so bad (in light of the hype); yes it was down, but it wasn’t a doughnut (zero). Perhaps they were being nice to me to avoid hysterical pregnant woman scenario. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t sell myself short. Regardless, I couldn’t jump up and down for fear of inducing an early labour but I was perfectly content. I still remember it warmly.

Perhaps this year I should enquire whether I accrue a bonus while on maternity leave.