Moms in the corner office

Back in 2002, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett caused quite a stink with her research findings that 49% of corporate women earning over $100,000 a year were childless at age 40. As a young, impressionable 23-year-old, I remember the reams of headlines following that statistic which basically claimed that it was impossible to combine motherhood and a high-powered career (for some reason, no one stressed the 51% who did have the kids and the high incomes, but anyway…)

However, the most successful corporate women I’d read about all seemed to be moms. In particular, after Angela Braly, mom of three, became CEO of WellPoint, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post pointing out that many of these women had their first children in their 20s — considered young in the professional set. They had lots of support from husbands, families, and paid caregivers, but they also built their careers with kids in tow, which made sure there wasn’t any sudden change at age 40, right as they were nearing the upper rungs.

So I was fascinated to see a piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning highlighting a new book called The Last Male Bastion, by Douglas Branson. Branson notes that almost all the current or former female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are moms. Right now, of the 12 currently in office, 11 are mothers. This is a very different proportion than half.

As the WSJ points out, “the prevalence of mothers in the corner office hardly means women’s careers aren’t disadvantaged by parenthood,” and Harvard economist Claudia Goldin is cited noting that these women are obviously massive over-achievers. The fact that they’re over-achievers on the childbearing front too is not surprising (Mary Dillon, CEO of U.S. Cellular Corp has four kids).

To be sure, there are trade-offs, and I was sorry to hear that Sonesta International Hotels Corp. CEO Stephanie Sonnabend’s husband stopped singing professionally and building his opera career because she needed to travel. He now runs a small recording studio, but basically gave up his dream career. If high-powered corporate jobs require 1-career (or at least 1 big career) families, this is not exactly a feminist victory, as in the majority of cases, it will wind up being women subjugating their own aspirations to their husbands’.

But I was heartened to read the final anecdote, about Janet Dolan, who ran Tennant Co., a maker of industrial cleaning products. As she was building her career, last minute evening meetings (probably scheduled by men who weren’t thinking about childcare schedules) were wreaking havoc on her life. So “I went to the CEO and said ‘This might hurt my career. I can do anything on 24 hours’ notice. But it’s very hard to do anything on one hour’s notice.” He agreed to give longer notice, and apparently it didn’t hurt her career, as she wound up serving as CEO for 7 years.

I just started reading the galleys of Michael Hammer and Lisa W. Hershman’s Faster Cheaper Better, which makes the case that many of the situations calling for “corporate heroes” who take last minute meetings or jet back to the office at midnight or what have you are the results of bad processes. Yes, there will sometimes be situations that require 4AM phone calls. But in a well-managed company, these aren’t exactly routine. And indeed, when Janet Dolan became CEO, she rarely summoned her management team on short notice for routine meetings past 5PM, the WSJ reports. A management system like that makes two career families far more possible.


One thought on “Moms in the corner office

  1. I am skeptical. I know a woman who is a top executive at Johnson and her personal life as a mother is kind of a disaster. Nanny from 7 to 7, and international travel that leaves kids from age 5 or 6 alone with childcare overnight and a so so father who is not an equal parent. I’m sure there are woman who doing it well but I’d like to say that
    Having a big career and having 4 kids who do not have cancer does not make you a successful working mom. Time does make for successful parenting within reason and it is hard to see how a woman who is working more than 50 hours a week has time to parent, very hard. Maybe these women are such great managers they are only working 40 hours but I haven’t seen it

    and I’d like to know how but there are limits and for those of us who have worked in corporate America it is still a pretty inflexible place, and I say this

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