Behind every woman is … a supportive partner

Most of us have seen the pop-art cartoon before, either on a refrigerator magnet or a T-shirt. It’s a Roy Lichtenstein spoof of a woman smacking her forehead and saying: “Oh my God! I forgot to have children!” A tear drips from one corner of her eye.

It became popular in the 1980s as a send-up of the ambitious career women too wrapped up in their work to bother with motherhood. And yet, there was some truth to it.

Kathy Korman Frey, an entrepreneur in residence at the George Washington University School of Business told me recently:

“There were a lot of sacrifices that the past generation of women made in order to get ahead, and those sacrifices were often marriage and children. But that is changing.”

She says today’s female entrepreneurs are figuring out new ways to combine their careers with family. How are they doing it? In a recent survey conducted by Korman Frey in conjunction with the Hot Mommas Project and the university, she asked female business owners that very question.

She says:

“The number one answer is something you don’t see at the office. It’s what’s being done for them at home by their husband or life partner … I was thinking they were going to say ‘MBA, super-über-drive or tenacity’, and here all these women write ‘spouse’. You could see my team and I with our jaws open, staring at the computer screen.”

In answer to the question “How do you make it work?”, about 20 per cent of women responded with “spouse” or “life partner”. Another 10 per cent credited the support of family and friends. Other top answers were: about 12 per cent credited their job design – flexible hours, location or working at home; 11 per cent said work-life priorities and boundaries; and 10 per cent said home services, such as childcare or cleaners.

“More often than not, you see a male entrepreneur with a multimillion-dollar business who has a partner at home to help them make it all work.”

(In other words, the men have a built-in support system who willingly takes on more of the domestic chores – the cooking, the cleaning and the child-rearing – so that the men can be free to concentrate on their businesses.)

Korman Frey says:

“But with female bosses, you’re not going to see that necessarily. They are often partnered with spouses who are also working full-time. The big difference is that the new generation of women entrepreneurs are not married to spouses or life partners who are singing the ‘all-about-me’ song. They have chosen spouses who are supportive, flexible and willing to pick up some slack.”

More than 9m women own their own businesses in the US, which represents about 40 per cent of the country’s enterprises, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The bureau predicts that by 2025 more than 55 per cent of businesses will be owned by women.

While Korman Frey admits she was initially surprised that female entrepreneurs overwhelmingly credit their spouses and partners for helping to keep their homes and businesses running smoothly, on reflection, she says, it makes perfect sense. She says her husband – who himself owns a multimillion-dollar consultancy – supports her “because we are a team”.

“In the morning, I was sealing a deal with the world’s largest small business association. In the afternoon, I was at a White House event for entrepreneurs. But what I came home to makes it all go. And – you know what? – he [supported me] 15 years ago when I was applying to Harvard Business School and didn’t know if I was good enough. ‘You are,’ he said. ‘I believe in you.’

“So, it goes way beyond a roommate to do the laundry and run carpools. This is likely what these women are talking about. This is what the new generation is about.”

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.