High-powered women and supportive spouses: Who’s in charge, and of what?

High-powered women and supportive spouses: Who's in charge, and of what?

After their daughter Annie was born, Gail McGovern and her husband established what came to be known as the “kitchen calendar rule”. At the time, McGovern worked for AT&T overseeing 10,000 employees; her husband ran a large unit of Hewlett-Packard. They both needed to travel regularly for work, but one of them also needed to be home for Annie.

“We had two monster jobs,” recalls McGovern, who today is CEO of the American Red Cross. “In the beginning, we fought about who got to take a [particular work] trip. Then we instituted the kitchen calendar rule: Whoever booked it first got to take the trip.”

During those years – ones where McGovern recalls her house as “always a mess” and her cooking as “a lot of take-out” – McGovern left the office at 6.30pm to relieve the nanny and spend evenings with Annie. Once Annie was in bed, McGovern was on conference calls until midnight. Despite their demanding jobs, McGovern and her husband never asked the nanny to work overtime, and they never missed one of Annie’s school assemblies, recitals, sporting events or parent-teacher conferences.

McGovern, a former Harvard Business School professor who also held top management jobs at Fidelity Investments, acknowledges that it wasn’t always easy. “You have to love to work, and you have to love to parent…. If you choose your employers wisely and choose your mate wisely, there is no question in my mind you can have it all.”

At a time when issues like gender inequality in the boardroom and the dearth of women in the corporate world continue to make headlines, it is worth asking: how important is the role of a supportive spouse in the lives of high-powered female executives?

“Those kind of jobs are all-consuming. For women who have husbands and kids and lives – how do they manage?” asks Betsy Myers, director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University. “As a woman is climbing up the ladder, how does she figure out her role at home? How does she navigate her marriage? When the woman’s career starts to take off, how does her husband handle it? It’s different for everyone.”

Myers, who leads corporate workshops around the world on the changing nature of women’s leadership roles, adds: “Of the hundreds of women I have spoken to who have really made it big, most tell me they could not have gotten to where they are without their incredibly supportive husband… At least the ones who are still married say this.”

Yet even with a supportive husband, it has not been easy for today’s C-suite women – those who have been in the workforce for 20 or 30 years and who came of age in the era of second-wave feminism. These women navigated thorny professional paths that involved not only moving up in male-dominated organisations, but also taking on traditional cultural values that place a great emphasis on the role of women as mothers and caregivers.  

Attitudes are changing, however. New research from Stewart Friedman, Wharton practice professor of management and director of the school’s Work/Life Integration Project, finds that young men and women today have a greater understanding of the challenges associated with juggling work obligations with family life. “It’s increasingly possible to carefully, consciously and deliberately choose roles that fit our values,” says Friedman.

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