The importance of having a supportive partner
Helen Fraser, the Chief Executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, caused some controversy last week in her speech at the organisation’s annual conference. She said that, as part of girls’ education, we should encourage them to give careful consideration to their choice of life partner, as “if you want children and a career, a partner who shares the load at home really, really matters”.
I couldn’t agree more. As GSA President in 2009 I also caused some debate following an interview I gave in which I talked about whether today’s women could ‘have it all’. I didn’t say women can’t have it all; nor did I say women shouldn’t expect to have it all. What I said is that having it all can be tough, and we are betraying the current generation of girls at school if we lead them to believe it’s now easy to have a successful, high-powered career and a family. Girls these days don’t recognise the phrase ‘glass ceiling’ (try it out). They know that equal opportunities are now enshrined in legislation. But if we lead them to believe that this means that there are no barriers to their achieving success on an equal footing with men in every profession, we’re in danger of generating naive optimism. There is still gender bias in several professional areas, and girls need to face this, and fight it. And they need to be alert to possible gender bias in their relationships and even in their own assumptions and preconceptions.
Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, advises, ‘Make your partner a real partner’ if you want both a fulfilling family life and a challenging career. (Click here for more from Sheryl Sandberg) Helen Fraser is saying the same thing. Successful women needs partners who “care as much as about you succeeding in your career as they do about their own”.
As a deputy and then a head in girls’ schools, I have worked with a huge number of women in my career who combined families and a demanding job. They needed effective support networks to get the balance right. And this started with a partner who was, for example, prepared to take time off work when a child was ill – often the couple would take alternate days off if the illness was prolonged. But if your partner insists that their job is much more important than yours, and such responsibility always falls to you, then holding down responsibility at work can be much tougher. And you have to watch your own assumptions too – treat your partner as a real partner and don’t assume that you are always better at the caring role and domestic jobs.
I recognise, and I’m sure Helen Fraser does too, that your choice of life partner is (we hope) the result of falling in love. But we are rational beings as well as emotional ones, and thinking through (and encouraging girls to think through) what makes a relationship healthy, balanced and successful, especially in the light of the personal and professional choices you may make in the future, has to be the right thing to do.
What do others think?