Superwoman and out moded concept

Superwoman: an out moded concept


Mushrooms, breasts and dentists

Yes there’s a link to why superwoman an outmoded concept is still being regurgitated in the 21st century !

Like many professional women in the 80s, I got caught up in the Shirley Conran philosophy that smart women could indeed succeed in a career, cope with motherhood and still have time to do throw a dinner party together, while of course, looking gorgeous 24/7. Moving on from Betty Frieden who asked the disillusioned middle class American housewife in the ’60s ” Is this all? “, Conran’s best-selling book Superwoman published in 1975, possibly turned out to be as misleading to women as any anti-feminist tome.

Having it all

Her mantra of “life is too short to stuff a mushroom ” became the catchphrase for women of the era. We were thrilled to have approval to pursue our careers and were finally given permission to take short cuts on domestic activities. Women no longer had to choose between career and a family – we just had to manage them.

There were two core concepts which were only lightly queried:

  • the first was that real work and the greater sources of satisfaction for women, lay outside the home. This of course created an instant rift with the stay at home mothers and genuine domestic goddesses who felt devalued.
  • The second was that it accepted domestic responsibility and child care as primarily a woman’s role. So this turned out not to be so much “having it all” as “doing it all“, a notion which lingered to our detriment. It perpetuated the myth that the way forward was by increasing our household efficiency not sharing it with our partners.

So women either did all the work themselves, or if they could afford help, they masterminded domestic operations with military precision. Lives became complex balancing acts and a juggling of priorities with those ever decreasing commodities – time and energy, topped off with a good dose of guilt and angst, so eloquently described by Marion Chapsal in her post “What is masculinity?” Any role played by many of our partners was described as “helping”.


I spent the summer with a large number of young women aged 23 – 30. I found some trending topics had changed, but surprisingly much hadn’t. Our conversations were both reassuringly and depressingly familiar. Today, 60% of graduates are women and they make up over 50% of the workforce. I expected natural changes associated with that demographic shift.

Are their choices any clearer?

The answer is not really. Although equal pay is now officially in place, there are still gender disparities in income levels. Women are still absent from senior roles and all research shows that they are still responsible for a higher percentage of household chores, although happily that gap is closing over the generations.

Similar pressures

These women lamented the lack of senior women role models within their organisations , just as we did. Surprisingly, they were unsympathetic to women with children being afforded special treatment in the workplace (flexible hours, remote working, priority at holiday periods, reduced demands for overtime, travel and weekend working) and felt this flexibility should be available to all. They even felt that single, childless people were expected to compensate for what they perceived to be lifestyle choices of co-workers with families.

They are appalled by the decisions made by senior managers in the hierarchy (male, older, work centric) who they believe sacrifice family life for high salaries. They want to own property, choose furniture and have children. They talk about wedding cakes. They are still under pressure to look good, plagued by conflicting messages, both direct and subliminal of becoming a size zero, but with Barbie breasts and hair.

They are very aware that slim, attractive women earn more than those who are not. Many of their parents are divorced and they want financial security and independence.

So do they still want it all?


I decided to ask! Research from a very basic mini survey I sent out suggests:

  •  74% of respondents indicated that professional success was  “significant but not to the exclusion of other goals
  •  42.3% of respondents indicated that having children and raising a family was “significant but not to the exclusion of other goals”
  •  57.5% of respondents indicated that a future partner would be fully involved in childcare

Having it all – but not doing it all

So it seems that these women do want to have both professional satisfaction and success and to combine it with raising a family – just as we did. They want to be financially independent even within a couple and expect their partners to be fully engaged in household management and child care – those are two key variants.

It would seem that they do indeed want to have it all, but with a major difference. They don’t want to do it all. This is a huge generational shift and eminently sensible. Research indicates that both Gen Y men and women are either more family or dual centric than their parent’s generation and their partners will be willing to be more highly engaged.

Ironically, part of women negotiating and achieving greater success in the workplace could be closely tied to the balance they strike within their own homes and relationships. This suggests that the father’s professional role will no longer be considered more important than the mother’s within the family unit. It also needs men become more family centric so they too will make demands on the system for change? I think it will.

As Conran also quipped, possibly older, wiser and more exhausted, 29 years later in 2004you don’t need a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist”

Perhaps they will even have time to stuff a mushroom or two. Do you?

One thing is for sure why we are hanging onto the notion of superwoman, an outdated concept if there ever was. It needs to be kicked back to the 80s where it was created.

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22 thoughts on “Superwoman: an out moded concept

  1. Ann Lewis

    Oh this is all so familiar Dorothy. Thank you for another thought-provoking post. Good to hear that women are falling less for the myth of being able to do everything.

    And anyway, stuffed mushrooms are great – especially done with a glass of wine to hand 😉

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Anne – yes I like stuff mushrooms too! One of the advantages of being older is you know why things happened -you were part of it! Yes I think and hope our daughters will make demands on their partners and employers.


    Excellent thoughtful and balanced article with gr8 insight into male/female balanced relationship issues; Womens new perspective as perhaps in ‘angst’ me another might now be summed up as ‘Life is too short to stuffed by a potato’ ( i.e male couch potato) who sticks to traditional male home ‘ownership’ and control of domestic activities. Right on to you! Maybe one my daughters mantras to her children could best sum up the ideal male/female family balance: ‘caring is sharing’ she tells her two young boys! Lets hope they absorb the advice as otherwise they are likely to spend much of their lives devoid of meaningful female company and that would really be a great shame indeed! TY for sharing!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Colmorian for your comment. As I mentioned in my own comment on Marion’s post anthropologically families and roles within it, were economic units designed to protect the species! They have adapted to changes over the millenia mainly in response to external factors. Long term “cherishing as a concept is modern. In previous generations we would have all died young anyway. I actually think that the demands that both men and women place on each other in today’s society are unrealistic – perhaps a whole other post.

      I’m also mindful that these topics are very middle class and for huge sections of the world population there are millions for whom the notion of work/life balance is about more critical issues than who takes out the trash and we shouldn’t forget that.

  3. Sharon Eden

    How I chortled, Dorothy, reading your excellent blog post…. What on earth did we think we were doing way back then? And, these days, I am better equipped to notice when Super Woman raises her head… because she still does after all that training! And those times when she catches me out are the times I’ve learned to put the brakes on… whatever I’m doing.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Sharon – yes it was crazy! But seen in the context of the history and culture of the time it’s understandable how it came about. Thank heavens a new generation are challenging it. I firmly believe that life issues will become workplace issues for both men and women. It will be interesting to observe.

      1. Dorothy Dalton

        Hi Louise – thanks for your comment. Yes it is and that’s how it started when I was talking to the young women in the summer. Explaining and discussing the historical develoments and putting their experiences into a wider context. It also opened their eyes to why my generation did the things we did that seem incomprehensible to them! There are so many changes going on currently – it’s fascinating. Maybe more posts!

  4. louise altman

    Hi Dorothy – a great post and wonderful specifics on these shifting trends. It’s easy to look at what’s reported about work and women and watch what’s happening in the workplace, and think it’s business as usual. And in many cases it is – for now. But these changes are a generational process and it will take time to really feel and see their impact on work and home life in the future. Would like to hear your thoughts on how the economic rehaping taking place will effect these trends – maybe that’s another post!
    One more thing, the voices of females exec Baby Boomers and emerging Gen X leaders will be instrumental in supporting and shaping a new organizational mindset that reflects these trends.

  5. Georgia Feiste, Coaching for Women Leaders

    Dorothy – great post! Wow – memories! Even now, as I work from home, with no children in the house, my husband still expects his dinner on the table, the house cleaned and the yard taken care of – because, of course, “You aren’t working” – when in fact I’m working almost as many hours as I did in Corporate America – just not dressing in a suit and heels and going to the office.
    But, having my boundaries and standards firmly in place, he quite often hears me tell him “I’m busy today. If you want ********, you will have to do it yourself. I’ve hired a cleaning lady”. It is great to finally be liberated!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Georgia for your comment. It’s important I think for certain situations to be viewed in the cultural context of other developments going on at the time. There is a veritable maelstrom of change currently including women making demands on both partners and the workplace, but there is also a huge increase in single parent families, which I think will make a significant impact – all set against a background of economic recession. It’s the total mix of all factors interplaying which I think will make a difference.

  6. Georgia Feiste, Coaching for Women Leaders

    Louise, I agree with you. Western women will be key to changing the corporate mindset.

    Dorothy, I have started 2 hashtags on Twitter #womenleaders and #wisdomforwomen. I would love to have any one of you contribute thoughts so that we might get these moving as significant conversations within the social media context. Thoughts?

  7. Judy

    What we now have to fight for (as you imply in your penultimate paragraph) is the right for men to stay home or work part-time, if they wish. Only when we make the whole child rearing thing gender-neutral will we achieve true equality of the sexes.

    There was an interesting article in Slate on Monday about women working part-time in The Netherlands, with some very interesting points made in the comments section. Their work culture is very different from North America and I doubt we would every adopt it, but perhaps there are things we can learn from it.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Judy – thanks for your comment. I agree I think we can expect major shifts in the workplace from the redefinition of male and female domestic roles . I have also observed the impact of the single parent family on executive search , particularly via increased divorce rates and have written about that.

      Thanks for the link – will check that out. Part-time working in Europe is
      quite common for women.

  8. Gwyn Teatro

    There were times in my younger life when I did it all. I would come home from having worked very late at the office only to find that my husband (the former, not the present) was waiting for me to cook his dinner and peeved that he had to wait so long.
    I’m so glad that women have greater expectations of their mates now. And, I’m so glad that so many more men of younger generations are willing to share the household work and parenting.
    When we get to the place where we look at domestic work simply as*work* without the gender attachment perhaps then we will make better progress in other areas of our lives as well.

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