March 23, 2008

What it takes

Denise of Bag and Baggage's recent post resonated true with my experiences:

This is all consistent with something Professor Joan Williams at Hastings told me recently: "78% of male partners are married to women who earn no more than 25% of the family income. That really highlights the fact that this all-or-nothing pattern of be a go-getter makes law firm partnership seem available not only not to most women, but also to men with a specific family model."

This is the pattern I see played out not only in the field of law, but throughout Silicon Valley with successful CEOs, venture capitalists, and business leaders.

And it's not limited by the gender of the party who is rising to the top. While there are certainly more men in the traditional "power roles" in Silicon Valley, there are some ridiculously successful women as well.

I recently attended an event titled Successful Women in IP Law and listened to three panels of intelligent, experienced, and all-in-all inspirational women speak about their careers. When asked, most responded that the single most important thing to their success was that their personal commitment to excellence in their career was backed by an understanding and supportive partner who made it possible for them to pursue that excellence.

All but two of the panelists were married to a supportive husband who had a career (in several cases, one of full-time or part-time homemaker) that took a back seat to her career. Of the remaining two panelists, one was a co-partner in litigation with her husband, and they had outsourced many of their familial support functions (nanny, land management, shopping, laundry, etc.) to a family that lives in the house they purchased behind theirs, effectively making their arrangement that of a specialized division of labor between two families instead of two individuals.

The one woman on the panel who did not refer to a supportive partner as a facet of her success was a single mom who, at times, when necessary, unabashedly and unapologetically took her child to many events where children are generally not seen as welcome (e.g. business meetings, depositions, etc.).

I think this reality is one that the our society doesn't address as openly as it should. One benefit of the historic division of labor in nuclear families was specialization, which is very efficient, if not always emotionally and intellectually rewarding for the individuals who specialized. When we move to a model of variety, where more equal responsibility is held for earnings, then equal responsibility should also be held for family duties, and the flexibility required for them to be met. Only, this often is not the case. If many successful leaders follow the traditional model, outsourcing or relying on a home-focused supportive partner, then those who wish to get ahead feel pressure to emulate this model as well. Whether this is for efficiency's sake, or because it is the only way to get ahead professionally in a system that expects you to have the support structure and not need flexibility, I don't know.

But it is troublesome to me. E and I are both very career focused. And I fear that at some point if our relationship is more important to us than our careers (which it is), then one of us will have to choose to have a career that is more flexible in order to allow the other one to succeed. Perhaps not. Maybe society will evolve. Maybe we will find a way to make our own way. But it's scary, none-the-less.

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