High-Powered Women and Supportive Spouses: Who’s in Charge, and of What?

At a time when issues like gender inequality in the boardroom and the dearth of women in corporate America 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?

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Late-bloomers and Power Couples

Women who occupy the C-suite today tend to fit into one of three models, according to Bentley’s Myers. The categories are fluid, but in general, they include: the late-bloomers, whose careers hit their stride later in life after they have taken care of children; the one half of a power couple, where both partners are in demanding jobs; and the breadwinners, who often have stay-at-home husbands or spouses who work in flexible jobs.

In the first model, “the woman may have stayed home with her kids when they were little, or she worked part-time,” says Myers. “But then when her kids are older or out of the house, her career takes off.”

Take, for example, Brenda Barnes, who left a top job at Pepsi to spend six years at home with her three kids, and was named COO and eventually CEO of Sara Lee in her early 50s. These women were always ambitious, but — by choice, necessity, or because of their husband’s expectations and needs — they spent more time in a traditional mother and wife role when their go-getting peers were putting in long hours at the office or volunteering for special assignments.

Judy Forsley, the mother of two daughters ages 19 and 22, is CFO of Shipyard Brewing Company, one of the largest craft beer companies in the U.S. Her title is relatively new, however. When her children were young, she worked in the accounting department at Shipyard. Her first marriage ended in divorce, and she was a single parent for much of her daughters’ childhoods. “I did much more of the kids’ stuff — the daycare pickup, the arranging of the play dates, the piano lessons and the soccer games,” she says. “I kept work at 40 hours per week. My kids were my priority. My career was second.”

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It is a choice she doesn’t regret, but she recalls struggling with it at the time. “When I graduated from college in the 1980s, there was this feeling of ‘Women can do anything.’ There was an expectation that we would be working 60 hours a week, raising perfect children, having the perfect house and being great wives. I felt like a failure only working 40 hours per week. It took a lot of discipline and control to leave work at 5 every day. Looking back, I put a lot of pressure on myself.”

Forsley, 50, is remarried and now works more than 60 hours a week. “The kids are in college, and I’m growing the business. It feels good,” she says.

The second model, according to Myers, is one of “power couples.” These include Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo who recently had a baby, and her husband Zack Bogue, who just launched a new VC fund; and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, who is married to David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey. These partnerships are built on a mutual understanding of the pressures of work and an appreciation for how much the other values his or her career.

In these marriages, says Myers, “there is an ebb and flow of careers. One partner may take a back seat for a while, and then get an appealing opportunity. So they move for that person’s job, and the other partner takes a back seat. In these relationships, we see a lot of outsourcing of childcare to nannies and family members.”

Jules Pieri, founder and CEO of the Daily Grommet, a product launch website based outside of Boston with 29 employees, has three sons ages 23, 21, and 17. Her husband specializes in sales and marketing for turnaround companies. When their children were little, she describes their home life as a “ballet.”

“Someone was taking the lead, and someone was in the background. We alternated who took the lead. It was tacit; it wasn’t overt. When you have little kids [and you each have a demanding job], the questions are: Who gets to travel without even thinking about it? Who’s going to be home for the nanny? It was more difficult when I took two years off from work because we lapsed into traditional [gender] roles and the traditional resentments that come with that.”

Pieri’s husband “takes pride” in her success and appreciates that she is “very ambitious,” she says. “He gets my kind of work. He’s been a CEO so he knows what it’s like. Tomorrow my day starts at 7 a.m., and it ends with a meeting that starts at six. He knows not to hold dinner.”

Karen Quintos, who has three school-age kids, is the chief marketing officer at Dell. She says that she and her husband Tony have “both had to make compromises given that we are both career-minded people.” She met her husband when she was at Merck and he had just accepted a big role at Citibank. “He had to commute back and forth between New York and Tampa. After two years of this, we decided someone’s career had to give. Our son was 18 months old at the time. I followed Tony to Citibank, where I worked for three years. I then decided to move to Dell, and he followed me here.”

Her husband worked for Dell for several years before they decided that one of them needed to be home more with their children during their teens. “As I moved into the chief marketing officer role at Dell two years ago and the demands for my time grew, this flexibility — Tony being home — became more important. It provides us with more work/life harmony. My kids sometimes travel with me; sometimes Tony does. I also realize that not everyone has this flexibility, but having a spouse that supports me, and I him, is huge.”

Martha Josephson, mother of two, says that when she first landed a job at Egon Zehnder International, the executive search company, she “staffed up at the office and staffed up at home” because her husband also had a demanding job. “I delegated every annoying personal task I could,” she says. “And at work, I focused on the value added things because I was gunning for partner.”

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