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Incognito: ‘It’s hard to be a feminist and have no desire to rise to the top: Why downsizing my career was the best thing I’ve done.’

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When I was young I always wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I applied to do a degree and had six unconditional offers. But, for various reasons I ended up going into software engineering, and then into recruitment. 

In every job I have had I have naturally taken on more responsibility and won promotions when they came up. If I’m honest, this has had much more to do with the fact I’m a people pleaser than any sort of drive or ambition.

I ended up getting a good job as a recruitment manager, running a branch of a national recruitment agency. We had survived the 2008 recession, I had managed to have a child and was working part time. I loved the job and my level of enjoyment and connection to the corporate world was really entwined in my sense of self. 

But it was also full of unrealistic expectations that weren’t matched with resources. At times I felt like I was trapped in an abusive relationship, guilty for causing the pain and reluctant to rock the boat for the other people around me —and worried about how speaking out or making a change would affect them. 

At home my behaviour started to change. I was too tired for everything, snappy and stressed, drinking too much (and not even enjoying it). One afternoon I picked up my son from nursery and found he had a dislocated elbow. I spent the whole time we were in A&E trying to resolve a staffing issue for a woman who had sacked her cleaning team. I should have been snuggling him. 

I eventually decided I would leave and take the first job I was offered and then look for something better once I’d made the break. When I worked in recruitment I had been really good at matching people to jobs and I loved motivating them to believe they were good enough. I loved having people come back to me every three years to find their next opportunity. I always advised people to put on their new CV the bits about their current job that they liked, and seek a new opportunity that offered them no less than a 70% match on what makes them happy. I took my own advice and I eventually found a job I loved, supporting vulnerable people finding work. 

I went from managing a team of seven recruitment professionals to being a junior learning a new trade in the welfare-to-work sector. The change of career cost me around £15,000 a year in salary and I also lost my £1500-a-month bonus. But I was amazed at how much I was able to fit into my ‘non-work’ life. The weightlessness I immediately felt was priceless. I was able to do the school run and have much more family time. My husband was completely supportive and entirely happy to put up with being poorer. He was kind while I cried and told me it would all be OK.

My decision definitely surprised a few people. I have friends who are Managing Directors, others who run their own companies or are successful freelance writers. One good friend’s car costs more than my mortgage every month. My sister is a headteacher and my other sister runs her own company. My parents both think I should be running the country. As their ambition for me far outstrips my own, it was hard for them to accept that I was taking such a ‘backwards’ step. 

Yet I don’t consider myself unambitious. I am driven by the desire for my child to look back and feel delighted about his relationship with us. I want him to feel like we were there for him. I want to go out at the weekend and not be thinking about the presentation I need to prepare for on Monday morning. I don’t want to be leaving the office at 7pm and getting home at 9pm.

For me, ambition is about not settling for less than you need or want. My career gold standard now is part-time hours, being able to have an hour at the end of each working day or a day off in the week to do chores or sleep. 

It can be hard to be a feminist and have no desire to ‘rise to the top’. I come from a generation and demographic of women who are almost expected to be dynamic leaders and to eschew the idea of being ‘just’ mothers — but I actually felt I was failing at both, that I should have been ‘grateful’ for the additional pressure of being forced up the ladder, dressed up as opportunity. Of course, there are some women that works for, but I think the pressure to get to the top is unhealthy. 

I’d really love to see a culture of understanding that success is not necessarily a corner office, but in strong relationships, in finding a sense of self-worth and the ability to be at peace with yourself, and, of course, to provide what you need for yourself or your family. Health and wellbeing for me is more important than the make of my uncomfortable heels.