The room fell silent. Kate felt everyone staring in her direction. Being the centre of attention was something she was used to but the room didn’t normally look like a lynch mob.
Up to this point, the evening had gone well. There had been the usual scrum to find the allocated seats but her table hadn’t included any “new age bollocks” people. All the pitches had gone well and she’d noted down a couple of women to chat to after the speaker had finished.
Even the main event had been a pleasant surprise. Karen McDaniel walked the group through her journey to set up the Midlands Empowerment Forum. Karen was genuinely impressive. For a start, she looked the part in a well-cut Whistles suit that fitted perfectly. Hair and nails showed the recent attention by professionals and most importantly, she could work a PowerPoint presentation. If there was one thing that wound Kate up, it was a speaker who couldn’t use their equipment. Karen was slick, professional and Kate felt an immediate kinship.
After rapturous applause, the organiser, Sheila, opened the session up to questions. She kicked off with one of her own, mostly consisting of grovelling praise for Karen taking time to present to the group. A couple of women started to get restless, keen to get a bit of attention themselves.
Kate decided to seize the moment and her hand was up faster than a small child desperate for permission to go to the toilet.
“I think we’ll open with our minor celebrity”, Sheila emphasised the word minor a little more than necessary, “Kate Smith. You have a question for Karen.”
“Well, more of a comment really”, Kate said firmly, “You’ve done a superb job getting this organisation off the ground. It’s never easy being a woman in business.”
Karen laughed, “That’s why I started the Forum. Women work differently from men, we are better at collaborating rather than being adversarial.”
“That’s what I mean”, Kate continued, “But it’s a lot easier for those of us without children. I mean, we kid ourselves, no pun intended, that we can have it all, but there is a point where you have to choose don’t you.”
“Yes. I mean there is success in business, or there is having a family.” Looking around, Kate realised what she was saying and tried to backtrack slightly, “I mean you can do both and be perfectly happy I suppose, but to play in the big league like you and I are doing, demands a different approach.”
She was suddenly very aware of the silence. And the staring.
Karen coughed. “I’m not quite sure what you are trying to say. I guess you don’t have children.” The rest of the audience murmured in agreement.
Kate found herself blushing. “No. I’m not really that way inclined.”
“Oh. Sorry. I don’t think your sexual orientation makes a difference.”
“Sexual orient… No! That’s not what I meant! No, I mean I don’t want children.”
It was Karen’s turn to blush slightly but she quickly got a grip on the conversation again. “Children aren’t poison to a business you know. I’m sure most of the ladies in this room can confirm that.”
The murmuring got louder.
Looking around, Kate realised she was digging a hole and tried to climb out. “That’s not really what I meant. There’s loads of great work going on here, but you can’t reach the top when you’ve always got to think about picking the kids up can you? Some of the people working for me are always nipping off for child-related issues.”
“Hmm. Kate, you do realise”, Karen said slowly, “That I have two children.”
Kate’s jaw dropped. She cursed herself for not doing her research properly. There was nothing on Karen’s LinkedIn profile that mentioned kids. “Sorry, I didn’t realise” she mumbled. It wasn’t a hole she’d dug, but a bloody great big bear trap and right now if it could have swallowed her up whole, this would have been a relief.
“Don’t worry”, Karen said reassuringly, “You’re not the first to assume that.” The rest of the audience laughed. “I don’t make a fuss about it. No-one wants to be one of those annoying women banging on about trying to do it all as though they deserve a medal for making it around a supermarket and sorting out their VAT.” Several women went quiet instantly. “It is possible to have a family and a successful business. All you need is two things – a partner who really shares the workload and”, she paused, “a great long To-Do list so you don’t forget anything!”
Everyone laughed. Kate sat down and took a gulp of her wine. She pretended that the leaflet on the table had something really interesting on it to prevent the hard stares she was getting from the rest of the room. She’d really put her size nine in it this time.