What my mother taught me about a career
As a child, Claire Valoti would sometimes help out in the family business, the Alhambra Hotel in King's Cross, London. Working alongside her parents, her tasks included scrubbing the sinks.
Now, as vice-president international of Snap Inc, the parent company of disappearing-message app Snapchat, she reflects on the split between work and home. “I think my upbringing has enabled me to realise that you can be quite fluid with it,” she says.
Her own two daughters do not come to her workplace, “so you automatically have some sort of distinction. However, there isn’t a ‘mummy’s working now’ or ‘mummy’s not working now’.”
Sitting alongside her in Snap’s London HQ in Soho is her mother Martine Valoti, who has run the Alhambra with her husband since 1980. She says that the notion of work-life balance is complicated if your place of work is your home, and you share your home with your clients — in her case, the guests of the hotel.
“I was working when I had to and [the children] were used to it,” says Martine Valoti. “They were used to me sharing my time so I think they accepted it because that was all they knew.” It is an intuitive concept: children learn about the realities of the world through the prism of their parents.
Jill Armstrong is a researcher at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge university and author of a book, Like Mother, Like Daughter?, on how career women influence their daughters. She says that for daughters “there is a lot of walking in their mothers’ footsteps”. According to her research sample of British women, daughters of career mothers learn that careers are rewarding, worthwhile and the norm.
Despite the tendency among women to focus on difficulties balancing working and mothering, Ms Armstrong found that all the daughters in her sample felt “well mothered”. This was down to their mothers being mentally and emotionally present when they were around, as well being clear about their availability and attending key events — at school when other parents would be there, for example. She also found the daughters appreciated that their mothers “encouraged independence”.
Although daughters learn that having a career is normal, a working mother may not be the most decisive factor in shaping their careers.
A 2015 Harvard study of 24 countries found that being raised by an employed mother was associated with a modest 4.5 per cent increase in the daughter’s likelihood of being employed, although they were 19 per cent more likely to hold supervisory roles.
Ms Armstrong found that maternal employment is not a predictor of career success, but having a working mother is a positive and often formative experience. As well as imparting work ethic and motivation, she also found that one-third of daughters entered the same or similar careers to their mothers, compared with the 11 per cent who followed their fathers.
Susan Allen Augustin, diversity and inclusion manager at the Open Society Foundations, the philanthropic body founded by George Soros, entered a similar field to her mother. Florence Greenaway was responsible for recruiting doctors from minority groups at a hospital in Boston, in the US, when her daughter was growing up.
“I was in non-profits and ended up in inclusion but that wasn’t intentional,” says Ms Allen Augustin, who attended work events with her mother and met her medical recruits.
“She was never directive in the specifics, but we were always having conversations about general politics, about women — in the workspace and more generally in the world. It was never framed as formal advice, we just had conversations about what was happening,” she says.
Myriam Bouzouaia has kept even more closely aligned: not only is she a vet in Tunisia like her mother, Asma Bouazza Bouzouaia, but she now works for her. As a child, she saw at first-hand the pressures of professional responsibilities. After her mother set up Clinique Vétérinaire de La Marsa, the second veterinary clinic in the coastal town of La Marsa, she would sometimes need to abandon family holidays to deal with emergency calls. Now, many other veterinary practices have opened in the area but old habits die hard.
“My mother is still stressed, that hasn’t changed. Something not so good is that she passed that stress on to me. But that can also be good because when we stress it is [because] we want to do our work well,” says Myriam Bouzouaia, who has worked at the family practice for two and half years and says she still loses sleep the night before a big surgery.
When Claire Valoti travels for work, she tries to explain to her young daughters what she does, and the enjoyment and energy she gets from her job. But she suffers guilt. “I still have an old-fashioned and traditional view about how I want to look after my home. That’s not all women, that’s just the way I am. I’ve put myself under additional pressure — to go to work and be successful, but also make sure I’m running an amazing home, that the house is always spotless and the kids are all fine.”
She feels that her generation of mothers are “perfectionists” and under ever more pressure to make sure that their children “are doing everything”.
Ms Armstrong’s research found that despite having working (or career-oriented) mothers, many of the daughters planned to work part-time after having children.
She says: “They were thinking about it in terms of the amount of hours that they would give to work and the amount of hours that they would give to their children. It’s a zero-sum game that you’re never going to win.”
Ms Greenaway says she felt little motherly guilt when raising Ms Allen Augustin because she shared the responsibility with her husband and two older children. “I am from a culture where we are taught that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ so I always had support, and when I took that specific job I said I needed flexibility because of my children,” says Ms Greenaway. She has just moved to London to help look after her grandson.
Despite pursuing a very different career path to her mother’s, Claire Valoti says her parents’ approach to running a hotel has served her well in working life. “It’s their own business and you saw just how much they care about their customers,” she says. “When I went into a more corporate environment, I took those values. I learnt to care more from early on.”
Online peer pressure
While on maternity leave, Susan Allen Augustin downloaded the Peanut app, or “mommy Tinder” as she calls it. Users swipe up to “wave” and make a mum-friend, or swipe down to decline.
Ms Allen Augustin found other mothers to meet up with for coffee and conversation while their kids crawled around on a baby blanket. “With our mothers, they were for the most part in the same place [that they grew up in], near to family and close friends. It connects you back to a community that [you] don’t have access to.”
But social bonds formed online can be positive and negative. When interviewing mothers and daughters about their careers, Jill Armstrong found the younger generation were more influenced by peers and social media than their own mothers.
“There is far more information coming at you [now] than there was for the mother’s generation,” says Ms Armstrong, who argues that this creates pressure around “the type of mother that you’re supposed to be”. That includes pressure on working mothers and how they approach work — or think they should.
Ms Allen Augustin says you have to know your way around online. She avoids parts of photo sharing app Instagram that might make her feel she must behave a certain way. “We have all dealt with judgmental spaces in our day-to-day interactions in the real world, so it’s become a community and space of safety.”
Essay competition: Win a place on an executive MBA programme
The Financial Times launches its seventh annual Women in Business competition in partnership with the 30% Club, which campaigns to improve women’s representation in boardrooms and at senior management level, and Henley Business School.
The winner will be announced at the FT’s Women at the Top summit on October 17 in London, to which all finalists will be invited.
The prize is a fully funded place on Henley’s part-time Executive or Flexible Executive MBA programmes (21 months and 30 months, respectively).
The competition is open to both women and men who have relevant experience in the workplace either in managing a team, running a project or planning strategy. To win a Henley scholarship, answer this question in no more than 800 words: “What should the next generation of women experience in their working lives and what will your generation do to create this?”
An edited version of the essay may appear in the FT. Last year’s winner was Catherine Williams for her essay on the question: “The evolution of women’s careers over the past century is disappointingly slow. Is it time for more revolutionary approaches?”
Entries must be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org by May 20 2019. Terms and conditions can be found at hly.ac/WiLscholarship.