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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Josephson made partner and today is the firm’s global Internet practice head based in Palo Alto. She and her husband, whose career had taken off earlier and who was a stay-at-home parent for a couple of years to help their special needs child, eventually divorced. “There’s a lot of strain that gets put on a marriage. We are divorced because of the dichotomy between the paces of our work lives…. Many couples will say that only one person can have a CEO job,” she says. “A woman CEO has a special strain: She needs to make sure her husband does not feel like the nanny. A stay-at-home spouse in these relationships can’t feel like hired hands. It happens to men and women.”

Mom: The Anchor Job

Myers nicknames the third model “mom the moneymaker.” “Her career is the anchor job in the family. The dad either doesn’t work at all or works in a job that has more flexibility, such as real estate or consulting. His job takes a backseat. We’re seeing this model more and more.”

Gail Galuppo, COO and co-founder of BankersLab, a Chicago-based company that provides training platforms to retail banks, is a mother of three teenagers. When her kids were little and Galuppo was climbing the ranks at companies from Standard Chartered Bank to Sears Holdings to GE — where she was made a vice president at the age of 31 — she employed a fulltime nanny to handle the childcare. Her husband worked in sales. While his job was more flexible, they both had significant travel demands. In her role as chief marketing officer at Western Union, for example, Galuppo spent 80% of her time on the road.

“We had a wonderful nanny who was with us for many years. But the nanny can’t do everything,” she says, noting that a paid childcare provider won’t necessarily detect behavioral changes in a child or know how to deal with homework issues.

When one of their children began having difficulty in school, Galuppo and her husband decided to make a change. “That’s the challenge for every dual-career relationship: At some point you have to make a bet on whose career is going to take off,” she says. “My husband understood my career path, and he saw I was on a roll.”

For the past seven years, Galuppo’s husband has been a stay-at-home parent. “He’s been the one who takes the kids to their activities, to school, to the doctor, and meets with teachers and school counselors. He does the grocery shopping and the dry cleaning. He said to me: ‘I want you to focus on your career. I don’t want you to focus on the little things.'”

Support from a spouse is paramount to steering a successful career and personal life, according to a recent survey of 270 successful women by Kathy Korman Frey, a faculty member at the George Washington School of Business Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence. In response to the question, “How do you do it?” nearly half of the women surveyed said: “support from my spouse or life-partner.” Other responses included: job design, work/life priorities and boundaries, and home services.

Not every husband whose wife has a higher powered and higher paying job has such an enlightened perspective, however. Jealousy and competition are common themes in these relationships. “We still have some residual, traditional gender attitudes in the U.S.,” says Unger, the author. “Men are supposed to be visibly stronger and economically stronger. When it’s the woman with the anchor job and the man is earning less money and doing more of the domestic work or parenting, he has to be at peace with that. He has to not feel threatened.”

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Women — even when they are making more money than their husbands and working longer hours — still tend to do more on the domestic front, which can cause some problems, Myers adds. “They are at work making big decisions and being the boss, and then they come home and they are still the boss and they have to organize and schedule. They are directing the office and they are directing the home. This is why a lot of powerful, successful women are single or don’t have kids.”

1992 versus 2012

There are signs that the next generation of women CEOs and dual-career couples will have a more egalitarian dynamic in the home. Wharton’s Friedman heads a longitudinal research project that surveys the school’s students and alumni on their beliefs and attitudes about two-career relationships.

In 1992, he surveyed more than 450 Wharton undergraduate students as they graduated. This past May, he posed the same set of questions to Wharton undergraduates in the Class of 2012. The survey asked questions such as: “To what extent do you agree that two-career relationships work best when one partner is more advanced than the other?” and “Two-career relationships work best when one partner is less involved in his/her career” [agree or disagree].

In 1992, men were much more likely to agree with such statements than women, according to Friedman. But in 2012, there has been a convergence of attitudes about two-career relationships: Men are now less likely to agree, but women are more likely to agree. “Young men graduating today are more egalitarian in their views and women are, well, more realistic,” he says. “The important point is that men and women today are more likely than the previous generation to share the same values about what it takes to make dual-career relationships work.”

Today’s young men have a greater sense of shared responsibility for domestic life, he says. “Young men are realizing they have to do more at home than they traditionally did, and they want to do so. Of course it might also be that men today are more inclined to expect and want their wives to work, both for income and for their wives’ professional fulfillment.”

Indeed, the new breed of women CEOs are taking a new approach to how they run their businesses and their personal lives. Noha Waibsnaider, founder and CEO of Peeled Snacks, the eight-year-old company that sells healthy snacks to Starbucks, Whole Foods, and other locations, has two small children. She says that she and her husband, who is the head of sales at the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based company, are “big believers in work-life balance.”
“Working crazy hours does not make you more productive or effective,” she says. “I try to spend the hours of 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. every day with my kids, and I don’t check e-mail during those hours. I have evening events, but I try not to miss my kids’ bedtime more than two nights a week.”
She employs a fulltime nanny, and her mother lives close by and regularly provides childcare. She and her husband split household chores equally. “We’re very different, and we have complementary skill sets. I do a lot of the home and kids’ organization, and he probably does more of the grocery shopping and cooking. We’re both in charge.”

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