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Women, Know Your Limits! (Yes, Really...)

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Amid the noisy hype of wanting it all, Fiona Cowood says there’s nothing wrong with shunning the quest for the top job

Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, made headlines last week, thanks to an interview she gave in which she did several decidedly non-politiciany things. She danced, swore, revealed the self-harm scars on her forearms, talked about her fears at becoming a mum for the first time and said she definitely doesn’t want to be Prime Minister. Why? ‘I value my relationship and my mental health too much for it,’ explained Davidson.

Talk about refreshing. It can often feel like you’re letting the gender side down if you dare to admit that the top job is not the one you’re coveting. If you’re not ‘side-hustling’, ‘slaying’, or aggressively asking your Instagram followers ‘who runs the world?’ at 6am on a Monday morning, then you can feel a bit, well, lame.

When I resigned from my job as assistant editor of this magazine, I often joked that I was ‘leaning out’ – going against Sheryl Sandberg’s zeitgeist-defining advice. It turned out that my ambition didn’t outweigh the reality of a husband working away during the week, two kids needing to be taken to and collected from two different places, and two hours of daily commuting. I loved my job but I had too much on my plate; I’d reached my limit – or ‘peak frazzle’, as I called it at the time.

Urging women to ‘know their limits’ sounds desperately unfeminist and outdated, but isn’t there something radical about knowing yourself and excusing yourself from situations that aren’t doing you any good? Isn’t there something brave in deciding you don’t care if you look unambitious or weak to your peers who are somehow managing to do what you can’t seem to? at being happier is more valid than a job title?

It goes without saying that every individual’s limit is different. I have a friend who says yes to every opportunity that comes her way. A flick through her diary makes me feel queasy, yet she navigates the day job with podcast and panel appearances and three children without breaking a sweat.

Ruth Davidson is clearly another ‘natural stamina’ type who needn’t worry about her track record or what others think of her. She revived the Scottish Conservatives from near extinction and became the first openly gay – and now pregnant – party leader, all while polling as the ‘most popular senior Tory’ among party members. But having previously suffered a mental breakdown and years of self-harm, she knows herself too well – and values her health and happiness too much – to want to convert that popularity into Prime Ministerial power. That, she says, would be her limit.

‘At the end of the day you just have to be yourself and do the best job you can and let other people think of you what they will. And there is a freedom in that,’ Davidson told the broadsheet newspaper.

So let’s hear it for the women (and men) who’ve climbed halfway up the mountain, spied the summit and thought, ‘Naaaah, I’m alright here, thanks.’ We still get the view, you know.