The Silent Partner – Influential Women and the Spouses Who Support Them

We’ve all heard the song Wind Beneath My Wings. In this breathtaking ballad, Bette Midler pays a heartfelt homage to her husband, whom she portrays as the person who has, quite selflessly, been her rock, inspiration and unwavering support throughout her long and illustrious career (insert tear here). While Bette’s position and role in her family may have once been thought of as the exception to the rule, clearly times are changing. Today, the traditional model of a husband as provider and wife as homemaker still prevails, yet it is far from standard. With about 75 million women in the U.S. workforce, it has increasingly become the other way around. Though this article references the male-female married model, many of these insights can be applied to all family models whether male or female, married or unmarried, straight or gay. The pillars of healthy careers and relationships apply to all.

The Rising Percentage of Women in Business

For generations, society has expected that the woman would be the one who steps back from career ambitions. And yet, women have long since established how well they can provide, as evidenced by the fact that for years they have outpaced men in receiving college degrees.  Further, as of 2018, women own four of every 10 businesses in the U.S. In fact, the number of women-owned businesses had increased 58 percent over a decade earlier, compared to only a 12 percent increase for businesses overall.

These statistics aren’t suggesting that men are getting lazy and letting the women take over. Men aren’t losing their place; women are gaining theirs.

Gender Equality and the New Family

In her 2013 bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, explores the challenges that women face as they try to forge ahead in their careers. In her book, Sandberg tells of her own struggles while balancing motherhood and career. She explains the importance of sharing with one’s partner the responsibilities of parenting and managing the household. “A truly equal world,” she writes, “would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.”That said, the question is, “As a woman leans in to her career, does she have someone to lean on?”

Rarely has anyone of either sex achieved high success in the business world while also single-handedly managing all the complex affairs of running a household – taking care of the kids, cleaning up, getting dinner on the table, paying the bills and managing the family social calendar. Breadwinners have always needed support. As women’s roles change, so too do the roles of their partners. In his case, he is not so much stepping back as he is stepping up.

In this new model, stepping up means growing beyond societal limitations to fill a much-needed position in the family unit. This loving husband and father realizes that his wife’s career provides a higher salary potential than he is able to provide, thus a better life for both him and his family. He willingly takes on this non-traditional support role so that the woman he loves, respects and supports can flourish in her career. He chooses to be part of his children’s lives, rather than having them raised by nannies or other family members. Yet, his choice does not go without pushback.

As women face attitudes in the workplace that threaten to hold them back, society also can be unkind toward men who choose to postpone their careers to manage the household. So, the question is “How can these partners best support each other to maintain a healthy family and career?”

As a stay-at-home father and husband of a highly-successful CEO, I’ve come to understand the challenges that face women in leadership. In my book, Lean On, I explore the challenges of work-life “blending,” the stigma of swapping traditional support roles, the prevailing societal attitudes of what a “real” family looks like and how you can make it work for your family.

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