Thursday, November 29, 2007

CEO Moms

The Little Secret of Women Who Have it All

WellPoint's new CEO, Angela Braly, made headlines when she took the helm in June. . . . She's also had some sidekicks on this journey: her three children. Yes, the only woman CEO of a Fortune 50 company is a mom. And not just a mom of one kid, as Linda Hirshman, author of Get to Work, suggests women should have to make it professionally.

Braly is worth studying, because the general sense from all the mommy-war books out there (from Get to Work to Caitlin Flanagan's The Hell with all That, and so forth) is that it's nearly impossible to be a good mom and have a big career simultaneously, or that it requires very stark choices, like having just one kid. Sylvia Ann Hewlett sparked a firestorm a few years ago with her claim that 49 percent of corporate women earning over $100,000 a year were childless at age 40. Then former Harvard President Larry Summers fanned the flames with his statement that the most prestigious jobs required complete devotion to work during your early years, and hence wouldn't be open to women until they were willing to sacrifice their personal lives.
How about they simply do as successful fathers have done for ages - marry another who is willing to be the primary caretaker? While I recognize that finding a mate to do this could be much more difficult than it is for men, our former president's comments were theoretical, as is my solution.

The best way to have it all, we hear, is to focus on building a career -- getting tenure, making partner, getting the corner office -- and then having children. This leads to a compressed baby-making schedule, since few women manage to have children after age 40 naturally, and even assisted reproductive technologies have limited success on older women. One of the reasons the new technology of egg freezing (which I wrote about recently for USA Today) is garnering so much attention is that it offers the tantalizing possibility of letting you cling to this schedule while still beating the clock.
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Old fashioned? Perhaps. But I think these women are on to something, and not in a Danielle Crittenden, What Our Mothers Never Told Us anti-feminist kind of way. There is a professional case to be made for having babies young, as long as you're willing to build a career at the same time.

For starters, even if you do plan to scale back while your kids are very small, career timetables mean less now than they used to. . . . Given how many people spend their 20s finding themselves, you may actually be ahead of schedule -- and you won't face the agonizing choice later on of having babies when you're at the top of your career.
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That makes the debate a lot less stark. That's a good thing, because the worst aspect of the whole "career, then kids?" or "kids, then maybe career?" debate is that it buys into the un-feminist notion that the two can't happen at the same time.
Ironic that the author puts forth this theory while making the decidedly un-feminist assumption that these are the only two options available to women.
When you have kids at 28, though, you build your career according to rules that you'll be able to live with as a family. As Avon CEO Andrea Jung, who became a mom around age 30, once told a Wharton audience, "There are a lot of games and concerts that I miss, but never the most important ones. There are also a lot of days and meetings at Avon that I miss -- but never the most important ones." Those ground rules let her raise kids and become CEO, without the stark choices that changing the rules later can make you face.
This relates to a recent article bemoaning the myth of the supermom. But is even though I am in no position to say whether missing "unimportant" games and concerts makes one a lesser parent, the idea of a CEO making such consessions troubles me. Much like other workplace accommodations, such actions have the potential to reflect on all women, creating the impression that female CEOs are less committed or less capable. If these actions have an impact on the company, it could even create troubling statistics in regards to female-run companies.

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1 comment:

joules.melanie@gmail.com said...

I really like the whole concept of egg freezing because it provides opportunities for women to make the choice of when they are having their children. Regardless of what side of the argument you are giving women the option to be in control of their own reproductive health is always a good thing.

In my travels, I found a company called Extend Fertility www.extendfertility.com. Their website has an informative and empowering outlook of women and their choices when it comes to their reproductive health.