Can you really be a feminist and not care about your career?

It’s embarrassing to admit, but my work is part of who I am. There, I said it. I’ve always known what I wanted to do and have refused to listen to anyone that tried to tell me otherwise or guide me elsewhere (my dad and dentistry, FYI). I’ve always been ambitious, but I’m wondering whether it’s enough.

My newfound insecurity comes at a time when we’re ultra focused on our careers. We lean in, become ‘girl bosses’ (a phrase I’d happily set on fire and watch burn); we add a side hustle onto our everyday one; we even turn ourselves into personal brands and sell that, too.

And that’s great. Only 22% of women in the UK occupy senior leadership roles in 2018 and women hold a mere 32% of the seats in the House of Commons. More women are working than ever before, yet we’re still being paid less to do so.

We’re not there yet and might not get there at all for another 217 years, according to the World Economic Forum. We need more women in prominent, powerful roles and it’s a sign of our more feminist times that we’re finally working towards this.

But what happens if you have other priorities? Do you have to lean in to be considered a ‘strong, independent woman’?

As Ella, a marketing executive, said, “It’s drilled into young people, especially uni grads, that your career should be your number one focus, the be all and end all.”

Just as I’ve always known I want to be a writer, I’ve also known I don’t want to take a place among the few female editors of national newspapers or run a magazine. I’m freelance; returning to an office can seem a bit much. Am I letting down the side by not striving for more? I don’t think so. When did we decide empowerment comes only after you’ve nabbed a place on a Forbes list? We shouldn’t feel the need to reach arbitrary goals we didn’t set for fear of judgement as failures if we don’t.

In fact, prioritising ourselves might be healthier, as a recent study by Gallup suggested that around seven in 10 millennials might experience some form of career burnout.

Yet, admitting that you’re not driven by a need to get to the top can feel akin to admitting that you’re not measuring up, even – dare I say it – lazy.

Kate works in technology, a male-dominated industry. “I have felt pressure to be more invested in my career since I have decided not to have children. No one has said specifically to me that they expect me to push for the highest levels of business, but I feel that expectation from society… I have felt like I should want to be a CEO or a CMO, but I don’t have that drive.”

For Kelly, the drive was there. Until, that is, it wasn’t. “I was very much a young, ambitious feminist: purchased my own house at 22, paid my way to go to university…” By 30, she was in a senior marketing role. Then she had children. “I told myself, my work and my friends I’d be back at work after three months.

The reality? Being a mother showed me what real feminism is: the option to be who you want to be. At three months, I realised that my strive to be this career girl wasn’t actually making me happy – I just wanted appreciation in the workplace. Yet the workplace was a global business, I was just a number.”

Let’s face it: as women, we’re constantly told exactly how we aren’t measuring up. Judging us on ambition is another way of telling us we’re not good enough. That’s rubbish. Feminism gives us the opportunity to take our place at the highest echelons, yes. It also gives us the right to choose whether we want that or not, without judgement.

As Paula said: “My job is exactly that: just a job. It’s a means to an end and pays the bills, but I have little interest in being the boss or earning millions.”

Our ambition isn’t a reflection of our standing as modern women or feminists, just our priorities.

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