Category Archives: Gender and domestic responsibilities

Is couple’s career coaching the new way forward?

Family planningI recently had a call asking me if I did couples coaching and family planning.  I told the gentlemen he had the wrong number.  The phone rang again.  It was the same chap.  No he insisted. Are you the Dorothy Dalton who does career  transition coaching and wrote Children: A  Corporate inconvenience and The Great Divide: Planned Parenthood and Corporate Planning? 

Why ..? I asked somewhat cautiously.

“Because  I would like some professional input on how to create a strategy for my career, knowing that my partner and I intend to have children and want to be involved with our families, but we are both ambitious professionally.  Neither of us want the pressure of being the sole income earner. What advice would you give?  Is  it possible do you think to have a couple’s career strategy?”

This was actually a first for me!


Nathan is just 30.  He has have been with his partner Holly (28),  for 8 years and they are intending to  marry in 2015. They both have successful early career track records in their chosen fields – Law and Consulting. Although neither consider themselves to be high-fliers,  both aim for senior management  positions by their early 40s. Holly stated early on that she is not a “bra burner”!  Both are well paid and it was clear that salary is important to them both, in terms of status and the opportunities a high dual income can offer.  They have a comfortable  life style but generally work 50+ hours per week. They are hoping to buy a flat in desirable post code in Central London, without parental help, Nathan was quick to point out.  Both would like private education for their kids and second home ownership, somewhere warm, is part of  a mid-term dream.  Neither want to be the sole main wage earners or child carer.  With the cost of raising a child to 18 rising almost annually, they anticipated they would need two healthy salaries throughout their working lives to meet their goals.

Here we have the archetypal  career couple challenge, but with a modern approach of joint forward planning,  rather than leaving anything to chance. Previous generations simply suggested that women strive “to have it all” and we know how well that worked don’t we?  Is this the  new way forward for today’s young couples?

I suggested they could factor in the following:

  • Ongoing strategy:   It’s impossible to start a joint career strategy in 2012 and just leave it to take care of itself. It has to be an ongoing part of their joint  long term goal setting process. Sheryl Sandberg said that choice of partner is one of the most significant decisions we make in a lifetime. Yet 50% of modern marriages end in divorce.  I suggested that Nathan and Holly make a conscious decision to invest and check regularly that they remain on the  same page and continue to share the same goals. There can be a tendency for all of us,  especially when busy or stressed to simply drift.
  • Audit of current companies. Can their existing organisations offer what they are looking for or should they move for optimal  longer term career progression in line with their goals? What are their parental leave policies for example? Holly’s manager had been told when she announced her pregnancy that having a baby was not one of her KPIs and was already starting to be side-lined.  Holly believed she would need to move sooner rather than later to build up her career and reputation in a new organisation.
  • Target  future companies. Look for organisations with strong and supportive parenting policies as well as an active commitment to  a balanced work/life culture, which both could optimise,  without being penalised.  This would be especially important to Nathan.  The reality is many companies discourage men from taking paternity leave in practise.  Networking in these organisations to establish if these policies are really implemented, rather than lip-service clauses in the company handbook, would be helpful.
  •  Senior women: Target companies with women already at  a senior level, who have a reputation for being supportive of junior women. Holly does not want to be a trail blazer.
  • Where to live: Is the proposed  property purchase a transition purchase or should they be looking at addresses near to preferred schools, with perhaps accommodation for a nanny and with easy access for family support?
  • Fertility back-up plan: I have known  many couples make a plan to start a family, but nature doesn’t always oblige.  Just because they intend to have their children when they are 36-42,  doesn’t mean to say it will happen. This age range is associated with reduced fertility. Oocyte cryopreservation (egg freezing) and elective sperm freezing would be worth researching.
  • Financial planning : Seek professional financial advice early on. Create financial reserves.
  • Plan for the unexpected. Although it’s great to have a joint life and career strategy, all laid out and agreed  and I do think this type of consultation will become increasingly common, sometimes s?*t  just happens. It’s not on the plan and we can’t do anything about it. People get sick, accidents happen and the unexpected hits us sideways.  The skills to cope  with these off-plan challenges will be paramount and not using them could mean that they become like under utilized muscles, without exercise they are not effective when called on.
  • Drop the plan if it stops working. The plan is not the end in itself  and panic is not the best fall back position. Give advance permission to create contingency plans!

What advice would you give to couples to create a joint career strategy? Is this the new way forward for today’s young couples?

Home and work: Balance or convergence?

Transplanting biz strategies into the home
The gender split of household duties and child care as well as a general work/ life balance, is one of the most talked about issues in any group of working women whether on-line or IRL. In a women’s online professional forum I have recently joined as a mentor, the issue is debated intensely, although with few solutions offered. Complaints abound: the lack of workplace flexibility, partner inflexibility, school runs, orthodontists appointments, parent teacher conferences, nanny, crèche and au pair issues

Earlier this year, I carried out a survey of Gen Y women and 54% indicated that they expected their partners to be fully engaged in household management and childcare, so with older generations letting go of the Superwoman myth, things should be improving. However currently many women are still assuming a greater share of domestic and childcare responsibilities.

Non – alpha males
Lucy Kellaway in an article in the Breaking the glass ceiling at home carried out an analysis of the partners of the top 50 Women in World Business. and decided that these women successful were in relationships with non-alpha males. “The biggest reason that alpha women don’t become CEOs is that they have made the common, yet fatal, error of marrying an alpha man” These non alpha males are seemingly happy to take a back seat and let their partner’s careers take priority.

I think however we need to bring some financial perspective into this discussion. Ms Rosenfeld’s husband, may have given up his professional activity, but was it really to pick up a dish cloth or pair up the socks? With Ms Rosenfeld’s compensation package according to Forbes estimated to be at $26m I somewhat doubt it.

Genetic hardwiring
Lucy Kellaway’s theory, interesting though it is, also flies in the face of anthropological theories fielded by psychologists who tell us that women are genetically programmed to seek out the males who will help them produce the strongest children. In organisations, these men are commonly (but not always I agree) found near the top of the pyramid, profession or chosen field of activity. So it would suggest that ambitious women would tend to seek out like-minded men.

So how does the average non salary millionaire couple strike up the ideal balance, so that both can achieve their career goals? As the workplace becomes more flexible with dress down Friday’s, remote working, and with the possibility of employees being professionally contactable any time and anywhere, how are some couples and single parents dealing with this?

I spoke to a number of different women and it seemed that many were applying business techniques in the home. I heard the words procedure manuals, outsourcing, monthly meetings, responsibility allocation, forward planning.

Personal stories
Julia a senior business consultant told me ” I approached it almost in a business change management way. During my maternity leave , I identified key tasks, drew up ” job profiles ” for our domestic management, splitting chores and responsibilities according to our strengths and capabilities and what was logistically possible. We agreed to allocate a budget for a weekly cleaning company, because neither of us want to spend our very little free time doing the ironing. We decided that in the short-term to take the financial hit to make life easier and it was a small penalty to pay for both of us staying on our career paths“.

It was one of my greatest professional challenges combining work and home” Sarah now a CFO with an international pharmaceutical company ” the early years were very stressful. I had a number of au pairs and nanny’s which basically ate up my whole salary. At the time my husband wanted me to give up work and stay at home. Happily I didn’t because we are now divorced! As a single parent I allocate domestic responsibilities between my children. We all have the equivalent of job descriptions and ad hoc project management duties! I am lucky I can employ domestic support – a man before you ask!

Sally’s approach is much more indirect ” I cultivated some weaknesses. I made a mess of the laundry early in our relationship and it’s not a job that I’m now expected to do. I designed a procedure manual and made sure all the recipes we use are in there. Now my son aged 13 has his own copy and is quite a competent cook. I use online shopping and home delivery for almost everything and even outsource the ironing. I’m one of those crazy people who goes to the supermarket at midnight! “

Melissa and her partner have a monthly domestic meeting in the same way as they might in an office. “We check how we are doing. Manage our budget, make plans and allocate responsibilities. Now the kids are older they also join in for the last part. The minute we let the formal structure slide – chaos descends in no time! “

So as the gender split of domestic responsibilities becomes a workplace issue, some women are making a corporate style stamp on their home management. But is this a successful attempt to find balance or a destructive convergence as Stephen Covey suggests in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families,Home life has become more like an efficiently run but joyless workplace , while the actual workplace with its emphasis on empowerment and teamwork, is more like a family

What do you think?

The season of discontent: Singles speak out

Workplace flexibility for all
I spent some time in the autumn with a mixed group of younger high-powered professionals. What they all had in common was that they were either single, or if they were in relationships, they had no children. Young and fancy free – sounds fun right? Well!

Chat moved on to their plans for Christmas. There was more than a little disgruntlement about the issue of how their offices would be staffed during the holiday season. Some companies now close completely, but others expect a level of skeleton manning. There seemed to be an unwritten expectation in all their organisations (cross sector) that when it came to allocating holidays there was a pecking order: employees with children would be given (or take) priority and then the singletons, would be expected to volunteer to organise cover amongst themselves.

These guys were not happy! Not just because they wanted to go skiing or the Maldives (although a few did) but because they had their own obligations and commitments which they considered to be equally important. In recent research I carried out on the priorities of Gen Y women, I saw that they were somewhat intolerant of workplace flexibility for women only and advocated flexibility for all.

Other obligations
David, a Consultant with a major audit company fumed “My parents are divorced and I need to make 2 family visits. It’s just not possible to do that in a few days. All I want to do is take my vacation time when I want it. Last year I provided weekend cover and worked late in December, so that the parents could go to school concerts and do Christmas things with their kids. Parents assume they are entitled to take the time off between Christmas and New Year. I will be expected to work. It’s not that I begrudge them flexi-time – but I think it should be offered to all

There are also many different types of care and domestic or family responsibilities. Susan is single in her early 50s and has strong obligations to look after her widowed mother, now in her mid 80s. Peter’s wife has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and requires additional support. They claim , that the fact that an individual has no children doesn’t mean their commitments are necessarily any less demanding. In a C.C.H. survey carried out in 2007 in relation to unscheduled absenteeism, more than 60% of unscheduled absence is related to non sickness reasons, resulting in huge costs to companies.

Responsibility to and for self
But what about the employee who has no responsibilities for others, but simply wants workplace flexibility to allow them to look after themselves? As working days and commutes become longer, technology now offers many options to facilitate that. Workplace stress also causes significant organisational and health issues, so shouldn’t employees be encouraged to give their own needs priority?

Madeleine was more direct and took a firmer view. “People with kids feel that their family status puts them into a special category. Having children is a lifestyle choice. Couples know what the issues are when they make the decision to have a family. My boss quite often asks me to cover for her when she has to leave early or work remotely to deal with childcare issues ( she has 4 kids) .I’m totally OK with that, but when I wanted to go to the gym in office hours, because fitness is a high priority for me and after a 12 hour day, I’m too tired, it was suggested that I go at lunchtime. Lunchtime is for eating! ”

The irony might be that working Mums, the group which cries out for work place flexibility the hardest, would actually benefit if that perk became standard for all. Leanne Chase of Career Life Connection takes the matter one step further and suggests that with regard to workplace flexibility “ for it to be universal we need to place a whole lot less emphasis on “family” “women” “care-giving” and “children.”

Could it be the protests from the singletons who want to look after themselves, or simply take time off at the holidays to relax and have fun, with no obligations at all, which will make a difference?

What do you think?

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Superwoman: an out moded concept

Mushrooms, breasts and dentists
Yes there’s a link! Like many professional women in the mid 70s, I got caught up in the Shirley Conran philosophy that smart women could indeed succeed in a career, cope with motherhood and still have time to do throw a dinner party together, while of course, looking gorgeous 24/7. Moving on from Betty Frieden who asked the disillusioned middle class American housewife in the ’60s ” Is this all? “, Conran’s best-selling book Superwoman published in 1975, possibly turned out to be as misleading to women as any anti-feminist tome.

Having it all
Her mantra of ” life is too short to stuff a mushroom ” became the catchphrase for women of the era. We were thrilled to have approval to pursue our careers and were finally given permission to take short cuts on domestic activities. Women no longer had to choose between career and a family – we just had to manage them.

There were two core concepts which were only lightly queried: the first was that real work and the greater sources of satisfaction for women, lay outside the home. This of course created an instant rift with the stay at home mothers and genuine domestic goddesses who felt devalued. The second was that it accepted domestic responsibility and child care as primarily a woman’s role. So this turned out not to be so much “having it all” as “doing it all“, a notion which lingered to our detriment. It perpetuated the myth that the way forward was by increasing our household efficiency not sharing it with our partners.

So women either did all the work themselves, or if they could afford help, they masterminded domestic operations with military precision. Lives became complex balancing acts and a juggling of priorities with those ever decreasing commodities – time and energy, topped off with a good dose of guilt and angst, so eloquently described by Marion Chapsal in her post “What is masculinity?” Any role played by many of our partners was described as “helping”.

I spent the summer with a large number of young women aged 23 – 30. I found some trending topics had changed, but surprisingly much hadn’t. Our conversations were both reassuringly and depressingly familiar. Today, 60% of graduates are women and they make up over 50% of the workforce. I expected natural changes associated with that demographic shift.

Are their choices any clearer?
The answer is not really. Although equal pay is now officially in place, there are still gender disparities in income levels. Women are still absent from senior roles and all research shows that they are still responsible for a higher percentage of household chores, although happily that gap is closing over the generations.

Similar pressures
These women lamented the lack of senior women role models within their organisations , just as we did. Surprisingly, they were unsympathetic to women with children being afforded special treatment in the workplace (flexible hours, remote working, priority at holiday periods, reduced demands for overtime, travel and weekend working) and felt this flexibility should be available to all. They even felt that single, childless people were expected to compensate for what they perceived to be lifestyle choices of co-workers with families. They are appalled by the decisions made by senior managers in the hierarchy (male,older, work centric) who they believe sacrifice family life for high salaries. They want to own property, choose furniture and have children. They talk about wedding cakes. They are still under pressure to look good, plagued by conflicting messages, both direct and subliminal of becoming a size zero, but with Barbie breasts and hair. They are very aware that slim, attractive women earn more than those who are not. Many of their parents are divorced and they want financial security and independence.

So do they still want it all?


I decided to ask! Research from a very basic mini survey I sent out suggests:

  •  74% of respondents indicated that professional success was  “significant but not to the exclusion of other goals
  •  42.3% of respondents indicated that having children and raising a family was “significant but not to the exclusion of other goals”
  •  57.5% of respondents indicated that a future partner would be fully involved in childcare

Having it all – but not doing it all
So it seems that these women do want to have both professional satisfaction and success and to combine it with raising a family – just as we did. They want to be financially independent even within a couple and expect their partners to be fully engaged in household management and child care – those are two key variants. It would seem that they do indeed want to have it all, but with a major difference. They don’t want to do it all. This is a huge generational shift and eminently sensible. Research indicates that both Gen Y men and women are either more family or dual centric than their parent’s generation and their partners will be willing to be more highly engaged.

Ironically, part of women negotiating and achieving greater success in the workplace could be closely tied to the balance they strike within their own homes and relationships, so that the father’s professional role will no longer be considered more important than the mother’s within the family unit. Will this mean that if men become more family centric that they too will make demands on the system for change? I think it will.

As Conran also quipped, possibly older, wiser and more exhausted, 29 years later in 2004you don’t need a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist”

Perhaps they will even have time to stuff a mushroom or two. Do you?

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