Fast Company

Want to Know How She Does It?

This month, Anne exchanges email with Allison Pearson, author of the best-selling novel I Don't Know How She Does It.

Anne One day, a few years after I had left my executive job at Viacom to start my own company, I was on the subway. It was midday, and I was sitting on a train with a funky grab bag of ordinary middle-class people. According to the norms by which I previously had some standing in the world, I no longer existed. I had to construct and, more important, believe in a new definition of success. When I read I Don't Know How She Does It, I was delighted by how exquisitely you captured the crux of that struggle. How would you define success for a (Western, professional) woman of the 21st century?

Allison Success for a Western woman is still bound up with a traditional male idea of achievement. Basically, women entering corporations are obliged to say, "Unsex me here!" like doomed Lady Macbeths. The price of competing equally with men is to remain childless - but men don't have to pay that price. Gender plays a big part: Women bring new life into the world, and I suspect that they have a surer grasp of what's really important. Sucking up to superiors, playing office politics, and sitting through time-wasting meetings that are really male arenas of grooming and display - women lose patience with all of that big-ape rubbish once they've had kids and need to get home to read them a bedtime story.

Anne I think you're onto something with how intolerant women become of time wasting at work after they have children. If we feel as though the work that we do may make a substantive difference in the quality of someone's life, then time away from our kids feels like a reasonable trade-off. But if the job feels socially useless, or worse, then time away from the family feels wasteful and stupid. Do you get the sense that women want something more than just personal "lifestyle" balance?

Allison From talking to women, I got the impression that making large amounts of money is less important than a sense of being appreciated and of working in a personally rewarding environment. Every woman I interviewed wanted greater flexibility in her working life - and was willing to trade pay to get it. Why are companies so damned slow to respond to this need? The passionate response to my novel suggests that both men and women have a profound sense of something being not quite right about the way we live now. There's a feeling that if things don't change, then we could be storing up trouble for ourselves and for future generations.

Anne What about the man's role? In your novel, it felt like Kate didn't seem to respect her husband, Richard, even though he did a pretty good job of holding down the fort while she chugged away at work. He didn't seem as sexy as her almost lover, Jack Abelhammer, the titan of industry, did he?

Allison I don't really believe in the househusband. Here's the problem: Woman wants man to become more domestic, more like a woman, so man familiarizes himself with the laundry basket and becomes more like a woman - and woman no longer wants to have sex with him because he's not enough of a man! It's not fair, but then biology has little to do with justice.

Anne When all is said and done, how do you define success for yourself?

Allison I find the definition changing. A year ago, having I Don't Know become a best-seller would have been near the top of the list. Now I just want my two kids to know that they have their mum back after her long absences spent writing and promoting the novel. You can't imagine how much they hate my computer!

Anne So will you unplug and stay home now?

Allison I did suggest to Anthony, my husband, that I might stay home full-time with the kids, and he got this look on his face - sort of a sphinx with a migraine - and said that he would pay me to go to work. He reckoned that I would be unbearable to live with if I didn't do some kind of job. People have said that Kate Reddy gives up work at the end of the novel, but that isn't so. We leave her knowing that she's going to climb back onto the machine: She can't help herself.

Anne The trick is that the machine that Kate is climbing back onto is one of her own making. By the way, "She Can't Help Herself" would be a great title for your next novel.

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