Thursday 25 October 2012

Stay-at-home dads and boardroom mothers

by Stew Friedman, Published TODAY, 24 Oct 2012

The arrival of Yahoo!'s Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer's baby on Sept 30 has returned pregnancy, working parenthood and maternity leave to the forefront of the national debate. I have mixed feelings about this.

Ms Mayer's situation is extremely unusual. A short maternity leave may be relatively easy for her, in part because she and her spouse are very wealthy and because, as CEO, Ms Mayer has considerable discretion about how to spend her time. This is not the case for most working women - or most working men.

And yet, the fact that Yahoo!'s board agreed to hire Ms Mayer as CEO while she was pregnant is a sign of real progress for both men and women. The decisions made by the board and by Ms Mayer signal something important to us all: Greater freedom. This episode is but one highly visible example of the many new options available to people as they struggle to pursue lives that fit with their most precious values. 


The choice that Ms Mayer made wasn't simply a result of her financial wherewithal; it had to do with the fact that it is now socially and culturally acceptable, at least in the West, for a woman to have a child while taking on a high-powered executive position. Even five years ago this was not the case.

We're going to see the emergence of more alternative career paths, if my research on business school students at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School is any indication. 

In 1992 we surveyed over 450 Wharton students at the moment they graduated. Then, this past May, we asked the same set of questions of the Wharton undergraduates in the class of 2012. In part, the surveys explored attitudes about two-career relationships. We asked students to what extent they agreed with these two statements:

- Two-career relationships work best when one partner is more advanced than the other.

- Two-career relationships work best when one partner is less involved in his or her career.

In 1992, men were much more likely to agree with both these statements than were women. 

The preliminary analyses performed by my Wharton colleagues and I show that in 2012, however, there is a convergence of attitudes about two-career relationships: Men are less likely to agree with those statements than they were 20 years ago, while women are more likely to agree with them. 

Compared to graduates 20 years ago, young men graduating today are more egalitarian in their views and women less so, perhaps because the latter are more realistic.


Men and women today are more likely than the previous generation to share the same values about what it takes to make dual-career relationships work. 

One implication of this finding is that there is greater solidarity among men and women and, therefore, more flexibility about the roles that both men and women can legitimately play in society. 

There is now a greater sense of shared responsibility for domestic life. Young men not only realise they have to do more at home than their fathers did, they actually want to take on those responsibilities.

Our survey also asked men and women to indicate how strongly they agreed with the following statements:

- It is easier for men to combine the demands of work and family.

- Pursuing a demanding career will make it difficult for me to be an attentive spouse or parent.

In 1992, we saw no difference between men and women in the way they answered those questions, but in 2012 we find that women are more likely than men to agree with those statements. Again, women today have a less sanguine view of what's possible. 

How can this be good news?


While it used to be that women had aspirations for hierarchical advancement that were lower than those held by young men, today those aspirations are the same for men and women. But now women's family ambitions (if we can call them that) are lower than they were 20 years ago. 

In 1992, 79 per cent of women graduating from Wharton said they definitely planned to have children, while only 42 per cent make that claim today. There is now greater awareness of constraints, and expectations are being adjusted accordingly. All this sounds like a reduction in freedom, right? But perhaps with a more clear-eyed vision of what's to come - and with men and women holding more aligned views about the value of work and parenting - people will take more focused, concerted action to chip away at the established order and pursue new options.

Ms Mayer is only one person, and a very fortunate one at that. But as both a new CEO and a new mother, she represents something more: A new, prospective model of what's possible.

That this choice was available to her doesn't mean, of course, that such possibilities are now here for all. But her choice is real. We are at the cusp of the emergence of new models. Young people will increasingly be active in carefully, consciously and deliberately crafting their roles.


Attitudes are changing. Yes, it remains incredibly difficult for women to break through to the top strata in business. It's still primarily a man's world at the most senior levels and there are all kinds of additional burdens that women continue to carry. 

And yes, it still remains difficult for men to opt for the nontraditional role of being a stay-at-home dad.

But we are seeing more expressed freedom, more realistic goals and more unity among young men and women as they create new ways to pursue lives that fit with who they truly want to be. And that's a good thing.

Stew Friedman is a practice professor of management at the Wharton School. The former head of Ford Motor Co's Leadership Development Center, he is the author of Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life.

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