I'm writing this shortly before March 8th 2011. This year the
date marks the centenary of International Women's Day. It's an
occasion to celebrate the economic, political and social
achievements of women, and it's a day to ponder the gender
inequities still waiting to be addressed.
That means it's time, at last, for my opinion piece (be warned!)
on what really makes it all work for professional women and their
It's not mentors, sponsors, or networks.
It's not stretch assignments, supportive cultures, or part time
work options that get respect.
It's not even rights to flexible work arrangements.
Don't get me wrong, all those things are important. But I
reckon the key to a sustainable career for a woman is something
It's a wife.
A mid-career manager and mother of two who I've known for many
years, had her career in a holding pattern, as she worked three and
then four days a week. What reignited her career was acquiring a
full time wife. Her wife - you guessed it - stands six foot two and
wakes up with chin stubble. After his many years of fulfilling but
round-the-clock hours, he had opted to resign and base himself at
home. She went back to fulltime work and soon landed a large,
demanding role with a new organisation. I doubt she would have
considered this position, let alone been considered for it, if
she'd tried to explore it as a part timer.
Here's another one.
Heading to the client's canteen recently, my conversation with
the Marketing Manager, a woman, went like this,
"How's your daughter settling into
kindergarten?" I asked.
"She loves it. But the whole
second week she was home sick."
"That's tough to manage with work.
It gets better by primary school, their immune systems
"No, my partner's one of those full
time house-husbands so her being sick hasn't been such a hassle.
Well, not for me!"
There you have it. Her focus on work, and by extension her
career, can continue because she has the equivalent of a wife at
Stories like these got me thinking about what it takes to
sustain a professional woman's career.
I'm talking about sustaining the careers of professional working
mothers of course. Before children, most women are seen,
and judged, to be fully committed at work, and their seniority and
earnings tend to track upwards. They may carry a disproportionate
burden of housework back at home (over 2 hours a day in New Zealand
for women on food prep and cleaning versus 45 minutes for men) but
they still deliver the full quota of hours at work and are prepared
to "do what it takes", anything from plane trips at short notice to
all night work sessions.
Women who choose not to have children, or can't, often continue
their upward career trajectory. It can't be a coincidence that a
disproportionate number of senior women don't have children.
I could name many local examples, but a striking one is Theresa
Gattung. In her autobiography (reviewed on
Professionelle) she is frank about her realisation that she
couldn't get to the top and also manage a family. In her
As a woman I believe you can have it all - just not necessarily
all at the same time.
I don't know of any NZ statistics on how many senior women
managers and professionals are childless, but a 2002 HBR article
by Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that in the USA half (49%) of
business women earning over $US100k had no children, compared to a
fifth (19%) of men at that earning level. I bet the men had more
children on average too. In February this year on TED,
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, referred to a recent US study
that showed the same sort of gap: only a third of senior married
female managers surveyed had children compared to two thirds of the
Put bluntly, children enhance a man's career and undermine a
woman's. It seems family responsibilities are deemed to make him
even more committed to his job - putting bread on the table as the
key provider - whereas those same responsibilities are assumed to
make her less committed - the child will come first because she
will be the lead carer. That's why he's a great dad if he takes a
long lunch break to watch his child's school swim meet, but she's
got divided loyalties if she does the same.
So the career sustainability issue for professional women really
only bites when the stork drops in: you don't need a wife till you
have children. (And if you no longer want a career after you've had
children, that's fine, I'm not judging!)
Do the Maths
In the BC years (Before Children) it's fairly simple for
professional couples. You share the chores and, if you can afford
to, often outsource the lawns and the house cleaning.
Once kids arrive, however, the maths changes. You may like your
house but you love your kids. You can skip mowing the lawns, but
you can't skip watching the baby vigilantly once she can move (we
rang the Poisons Hotline three times, I confess), and you can't
leave her home alone when she's asleep either.
It doesn't get much freer when she starts school, though as
first time parents we naively thought this would make everything
easier. Later, I calculated how many hours of childcare parents
like us needed once children started school. Allowing three hours
daily for after school care, plus holidays, it took 27 working
weeks - 23 if you net off your 4 weeks' paid holiday. That's still
almost half a year!
The numbers are clear - from birth up to at least 14 years, your
children will need between 1000 and 2000 hours' care a year, or a
half to one full time role. And if you've been there, you know that
it can be easier to manage the 2000 hours of full time care than
the 1000 hours slotted round both school holidays and school days
that finish well ahead of workdays. It's a huge demand. Who ya
Wife Equivalent Units
Wives don't have to be bearded baritones, of course - and
usually aren't! A full time Wife Equivalent Unit (that's 1
FTWEU) can be built other ways for those families where the woman
is seeking to continue building her career.
Most working families nowadays use some sort of outsourcing to
achieve their FTWEU. Childcare centres, grannies and aunties (if
relatives live close enough), child minders etc. The hitch is
that these usually need stitching together into a workable
solution. That not only takes a good deal of planning, it's also at
risk of unravelling when the childminder gets a flat tyre in the
same week that Auntie, the usual back-up, is out of town. If
a professional woman's FTWEU includes herself as the lead planner
and problem solver - and my observation is that many do - she's
struggling against distractions.
That's why I believe it's such a relief for a professional woman
to have a wife equivalent unit who is one trusted and reliable
person, rather than a patchwork of people and facilities. It's so
hard to concentrate and perform well when part of your mind is
fretting over arrangements to keep your child safe and happy. When
you know someone else is competently and caringly picking up the
pieces you can focus on the job at hand. To me, that's the
essential benefit a wife brings to sustaining a career.
Ah, but this kind of reliable, loving, flexible full time person
doesn't come cheap. I'm a bit of out of touch but my quick
estimate of the cost of a full time nanny came out at a ghastly
$65000 from pre tax income ($40k from post tax). So if that's the
minimum you need to be earning to cover your wife-like childcare,
and if you then add on some extra income to actually finish up
ahead, you're looking at the very top percentiles of our local
household income distribution.
There are cheaper alternatives that suit some families (shared
in-home childcare for example, and potentially a nana in support)
but it's also easy to see why one parent, he or she, opts to forego
their not-so-stratospheric salary and stay home.
Yet childcare is the price of continuing a career because you
cannot be the parent of a child under 14 and earn an
economic income, ie dollars paid in the marketplace, without
it. At this point I could head into a long grumble about the
iniquity of tax treatment in this area, but I'll save that for
Ideally the working world would allow both parents to have the
fulfilment of children but also to further their careers and grow
their businesses. But right now most working households with
children seem to have room for only one "full bore" career or lead
income earner, and one supporting career and income. I can't see
that changing significantly until at least two things happen:
- Wifelike childcare (loving, reliable and simple to run across
all child stages) becomes more affordable relative to prevailing
- Organisations work out how to structure important roles on
something other than 5 office days and 60 hours a week
Last point. Successful dual "full bore" career households with
young children do exist but for sure they plough a significant
portion of their high combined income into a full time lead carer
and robust back up.
How you design your FTWEU and how you afford it is up to you -
but if as a professional woman you want a sustainable career once
you have children, I believe the essential ingredient is someone
reliable and loving to keep the home fires burning happily.
In short, you need a wife.