Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 9, 2020
What are the risks for smart, powerful, successful women?
For advice on that puzzle I turned to an article in the Atlantic by Derek Thompson, “When a Promotion Leads to Divorce.”
I try to make a concerted effort to support and coach women entrepreneurs. The statistics are overwhelming and compelling across every category — media, corporate or political leadership — women are 50 percent of the population, but they hold less than 50 percent of the seats at any table (other than perhaps the kitchen table, which in itself is a sad statement).
Thompson points out that for the ninth time in the past 10 years, no women were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. Women account for less than 10 percent of the Fortune 500 chief executives. And women entrepreneurs received only 2.8 percent of total venture funding in 2019.
Thompson notes all the usual suspects affecting the lack of women in leadership or founder positions — “institutional sexism on corporate boards, old-boy networks and inequitable parental leave.” But then Thompson blasts the doors open with this one — “career success is a male drama in which women must do their best in a supporting role.” Lots of women are chief operating officers, but not so many are chief executive officers. Yet a staggering amount of statistical evidence supports that “women score higher than men in most leadership skills.”
My son has a daughter (15 months old). I wonder, as does every parent and grandparent of a daughter, when, if ever, will the scales come into balance. The New York Times recently profiled Jessica Lessin, a smart, powerful woman, founder of The Information. But the article notes that her father and her husband were very rich, so raising money was easy for her. They demean her achievement with that little snipe. It is never good enough.
The latent assumption when a woman rises to the top in any field is that some older, more powerful man helped her or mentored her or introduced her or backed her. That may be the case, but so what. Most of us get there because someone “gave us a chance.” A study done by Monitoring the Future found that “the share of teenagers who said mothers working full-time was desirable increased just two points — over 40 years — from 3 percent to 5 percent. But the word “desirable” is not the same as “necessary,” and this is reflected in the current need for a dual-income family unit. The study goes on to say that “more young men think working wives are necessary to afford a modern life,” which is not the same as saying, “I look forward to cherishing my future wife’s career.”
This thinking is not limited to America; it rears its ugly head in one of the most social-democratic countries in the world — Sweden. Two Swedish researchers, Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne, looked at how “career milestones affected marriages.” Their study found that certain kinds of promotions doubled the rate of divorce — for women, but not for men. And those kinds were “mayoral or parliamentarian.” The same was true in the corporate world — your wife becomes CEO and it is twice as likely she will “get divorced within five years.” And we will all know about dating apps where women downplay their paycheck.
The research did call out a particularly destabilizing feature — “the overturning of initial expectations.” That is the famous “I thought we made a deal and now you want to renegotiate.” Don’t wait, renegotiate early — it is hard enough to start something without having to fear its potential success. It is not only the realignment of women’s expectations, it is equally a demand that men embrace and honor a woman’s success, without feeling emasculated or demeaned.
The movies show lots of powerful women in all kinds of roles, from Wonder Woman to Little Women, but when the lights go up, we are left with the old patterns and traditional roles that come home with us from the theater. Thelma and Louise may have started a “feminist legacy,” but all women know that the Grand Canyon is a pretty steep price to pay.
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. [email protected]
Rule No. 648
“You get what you settle for.” — Louise in
“Thelma & Louise”