Today I read in a magazine that ‘statuesque Dragon’s Den star Peter Jones gets up at 5am, so he can juggle running his business empire with the school run’.
Except I didn’t. In the same way that I didn’t read about ‘new father Mark Zuckerberg juggling baby care with overseeing his multi-billion-pound Facebook fortune’, or ‘silver-coiffed dad-of-three Richard Branson musing on how he juggled setting up his Virgin companies with keeping family life running smoothly’.
Of course I didn’t. That would never happen – because childcare responsibilities aren’t apparently something male entrepreneurs worry about.
But female business owners, well, they’re juggling non-stop. It’s juggle, juggle, juggle all day long for them. With baby wipes, spreadsheets, Calpol bottles, VAT forms, and pouches of carrot purée whirling so fast between their hands it’s a blur. You see, they’re only dabbling in business, because – obviously – looking after the kids is their main job. Or, at least, that’s what much of the media would have you believe.
It’s the same media that brought the dreaded word ‘mumpreneur’ into existence – a word I loathe so much I can barely type it. Only very strong coffee and those pseudo-ironic, distancing inverted commas are allowing me to do so. Never has so much patronising, patriarchal poppycock been crammed into three seemingly innocuous syllables (although ‘momager’, with its insidious undertones of thwarted maternal ambition, comes a close second). I’d never use it. And here’s why.
It pretends to be a syntactical celebration of female empowerment, seemingly telling the world, ‘oooh, look at this woman being a mother and a business founder, how wonderful!’
The word mumpreneur might purport to aggrandise women, but it really belittles them. It pretends to be a syntactical celebration of female empowerment, seemingly telling the world, ‘oooh, look at this woman being a mother and a business founder, how wonderful!’ But note the order: mum first, entrepreneur second.
It’s primarily defining women in terms of motherhood – and then tacking the other stuff on the end. That’s exactly why it’s like one of those ‘false friends’ you learn about in French class (such as ‘bras’ – which, in the Gallic tongue, is definitely not the plural of something women burned in the 1960s to stop this sort of nonsense). It’s really saying ‘well done, sweetie’ in the most patronising tone possible, while patting the woman on the head and sending her back to the kitchen to bake another batch of glittery cupcakes with the kids.
How can this still be happening in 2016? We’re well on our way into the 21st century. Humans have worked out how to grow organs from stem cells. We’ve found ice on Mars – and broken the petaflop barrier (whatever that is). And yet, women – even highly qualified, outspoken, financially successful women – are still being defined in terms of their fecundity. This kind of thinking has its roots in the world view that made Henry the Eighth do all that divorcing, spousal beheading and initiating of the Reformation. It’s centuries out-of-date.
Come on, it’s just a word, I hear some of you say. But words are powerful. They shape our understanding of the world and, therefore, how we organise it. As the great Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ And this kind of language works covertly to keep the deeply unfair status quo in place.
In terms of fathers sharing childcare, the UK is the most unequal country in the developed world – according to research from The Fatherhood Institute. This is undoubtedly linked to the fact that we have the highest childcare costs in the world. As the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation concludes in its report on the subject, ‘such high costs are a strong deterrent to employment. It may not be financially worthwhile for both partners to work, and it is usually the mother who stays at home.’
This is the context in which the word ‘mumpreneur’ has come into parlance. Over two-thirds (68%) of mothers with kids under 18 are the parent primarily responsible for their care. With soaring childcare costs, self-employment has become one of the few viable options for these women to earn some kind of living. And they’re doing it in their hundreds of thousands. The Office for National Statistics says over 800,000 British women have set up part-time, home-based businesses. But are they all choosing freely to do so or being kettled into it by wider, gender-biased, socio-economic factors?
It all works to keep childcare a feminine domain – and conveys subconscious messages about the limits of female identity to the next generation.
What’s more, ‘mumpreneur’ is most often used to describe someone who runs a very specific type of micro business – revolving around baby and children’s clothing, accessories, toiletries, toys or activities. Obviously, I understand that stay-at-home parents become experts in these sorts of things, because that’s what they deal with every day.
But it all works to keep childcare a feminine domain – and conveys subconscious messages about the limits of female identity to the next generation. Little girls are less likely to believe they can become engineers, surgeons or astronauts if they see their mums spending their days selling organic cotton burping cloths or nappy covers made out of vintage kimonos.
For me, the word mumpreneur (that’s me typing it for the last time now, the caffeine’s wearing off) is plain sexist. The domestic arrangements of business women should be as irrelevant as those of their male counterparts. The juggling should be left to the clowns.