Career women need to think twice about Mr Right


Aspiring female chief executives should marry someone who is happy to play a supporting role

ON THE front of Wednesday’s Financial Times was a picture of Kate Middleton smiling adoringly at the future king of England and giving every impression of delight over her new job as the nation’s foremost corporate wife.

The image was at odds with the message emblazoned across the skyline that day about thrusting corporate women. It was even more at odds with the magazine folded into the newspaper, containing the Financial Times’s ranking of the 50 most powerful women in world business.

When I had tired of ogling Middleton’s hand, held stiffly so as to show off the sapphire engagement ring that used to belong to her dead mother-in-law-to-be, I turned to the article inside. It was an account of how successful career women are all getting stuck in the “marzipan layer” just below the boardroom.

According to the author, Sylvia Hewlett of Columbia University, this is because too few men are willing to pull women up on to the top of the cake.

Men, she argues, are worried about being seen to support a woman too openly because they fear they might be suspected of having an affair with her.

This strikes me as a pretty feeble reason for the lack of women chief executives. Hewlett is right to say that men hold women back, but is wrong to think the holding back happens at work. In fact, it happens at home.

The biggest reason that alpha women don’t become chief executives is because they have made the common, yet fatal, error of marrying an alpha man.

My evidence for this is based on long observation of the women I know. Some of them did brilliantly for a bit, but then their careers stalled. The problem was not that they had had too many children (successful women seem to have lots of them) but that their alpha husbands insisted on putting their own careers first.

Until last week this was just a vague prejudice. On Wednesday though I sat down with the list of the 50 top business women and Googled each one, searching for information about their home lives. Annoyingly, some of them have succeeded in keeping their private lives private, but with the rest I found my theory spectacularly well borne out.

Nearly all have children, but I could not find a single one with an alpha male husband.

The only whiff of an alpha mate came from the household of Andrea Jung, chief executive of Avon, whose husband was the chief executive of Bloomingdale’s. I use the past tense not because he lost the job, but because he lost his wife – the marriage didn’t last.

As far as I could tell, all the others have husbands who have been prepared to sacrifice their careers in order to aid the glorious ascent of their wives.

Indra Nooyi, chief executive of Pepsi and the world’s most powerful businesswoman, is married to a man who quit his job and became a consultant to fit in with his wife and children. Ditto with Irene Rosenfeld at Kraft, whose husband decided to be self-employed 20 years ago to help her. Ditto with Ursula Burns at Xerox.

There are three pretty obvious reasons why the alpha husband is a problem for the aspiring female chief executive. First is logistics. If you want to be really successful, you need to be mobile. You need to have a husband like Gregg Ahrendts, who wound up his construction business so that Angela could move to London to be chief executive of Burberry. You also need to have someone who is prepared to see the children occasionally and above all, you need a bit of encouragement.

If you have spent all day competing with men at work, you don’t want to go on competing at home. You want someone like Lloyd Bean, Ursula Burns’s husband, who worked at Xerox long before she joined, but who claimed delight when his own wife whizzed past him in the fast lane. Or like the husband of the Indian banking supremo Chanda Kochhar. She says he is “genuinely happy about my progress”.

The lesson for a future female corporate queen is to give more thought to her choice of spouse. She should go for someone who is mentally her match, but who is happy to play a supporting role. In other words, Mr Right should be a male Kate Middleton.

Alas, there is a problem here in both demand and supply. High-flying women are programmed to go for high-flying men. Most men are not attracted to women who are more successful than they are.

And until those things change, there is not going to be more than the odd sprinkling of women emerging from the sticky yellow marzipan into the glorious royal icing on top. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010)