commentary

Behind Every Great Woman, Is a Primary Care Giver?

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Emma

by Emma Birchall, Head of Research, Future of Work
Not a particularly catchy phrase is it? Yet, it was perhaps the loudest message to attendees of a recent conference on gender in the workplace.

The delegates, predominantly 20- and 30- somethings, were treated to a line up of some of the most incredible women in the fields of business, government, finance and media. Many of these inspirational leaders attributed their success to good networks, a strong sense of purpose and never shying away from risks and opportunities when they arose. Interestingly, however, many also emphasised the importance of “finding the right husband.” And in this case, the right husband was one who would be prepared to raise the kids, relocate for your career as quickly as he would for his own, and who would accept your long working hours, high stress levels and long periods of absence.

Now, few women, even us stereotypically independent Millennial types, would reject the benefits of having a supportive, caring and kind partner to turn to while we navigate our complex careers. What we might perhaps find less palatable is turning this “nice to have” into a “business critical”. (This sentiment was echoed by one attendee, who posed the question “What advice would you give to single mothers because I’d hate to add ‘find a husband’ to my to-do list?” That this question received a rapturous round of applause, spoke volumes.)

With 42% of marriages in the UK ending in divorce, finding the right husband is not a particularly resilient career plan, nor is it advice that anyone can really act on unless partner-finding takes on the same rigour as the average recruitment campaign (and while there are signals that this is the approach favoured by some, it is thankfully not yet accepted by many). Instead, perhaps we should be encouraging men and women to create sustainable and resilient networks of support including, but not limited to, a husband/wife should they desire one, find one, marry one and manage to avoid divorcing one. Likewise, the advice should perhaps be for a stronger call for real flexible working arrangements that cross something off the to-do list of single parents rather than adding to the workload.

The advice was of course well-intentioned and drawn from the particular experiences of some of the guest speakers in attendance. To request they recommend anything else would be insincere. Instead, we’ll do well to take the principle of the recommendation – building good support networks – and then tailor the rest to suit the lifestyle we ultimately half create and half have bestowed upon us by luck, circumstance and events beyond our control.

Perhaps the phrase should instead be “Behind every great leader is a support network, future-focused organization and an awareness that relationships can rarely be project managed.”

Still not very catchy though is it?