Double Duty

Double Duty

Women who make it to the top in business carry the burden of society's expectations

By Barbara A. Walsh | Photos by Heather Perry '93


Across the table, Charlotte lounges in her pajamas, watching a cartoon on the kitchen television. Petersen’s husband, Robert Wells, left an hour ago for a flight to Washington, D.C., where he is developing a health-care consulting company.

In between encouraging Charlotte to finish her breakfast, Petersen makes a grocery list, fills Charlotte’s lunch box, and writes dinner instructions for the family’s 21-year-old German au pair. “It can be nuts at times,” Petersen admitted. “Inevitably, I am always working two jobs, and that is where,” she added, “it sucks to be a woman.”

As more women break the glass ceiling, pulling themselves to the top of the corporate ladder, they are learning that—despite help from a partner and grandparents, even an au pair—balancing career, motherhood, home, and a personal life can create plenty of angst.

Women have made strides in the workplace. They represented 46 percent of the workforce in 2007 compared to 30 percent in 1950. But studies show they have not made similar gains in the home. A 2006 University of Maryland report showed that working women do twice as much housework and child care as their spouses.

Christine Petersen '85
Christine Petersen '85

“Certainly women have come a long way in the workforce. But, in terms of the division of labor around parenting, there are changes, but [they’re] not that significant,” said Teresa Arendell, a sociology professor at Colby who also teaches in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. “The daily child care may be reconfigured, but someone still has to do the delegating, supervising, and management.

“Even in couples who claim to be dual parenting, who makes doctor appointments? Who takes the kid to the doctor? Who makes sure the gym clothes are clean for Tuesday morning?” Arendell asked.

The issue of working mothers sparked a national debate last fall when Alaska Governor Sarah Palin pursued the nation’s second-highest office. Some critics argued that a mother of five might not be capable of handling her duties in the home and in the White House.

Said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, introducing Palin at the Republican National Convention: “When do they ever ask a man that question?”

Despite the hours a woman puts in at the office, society still assigns most of the child-rearing and home-care duties to the mother. “A child may have two parents, but if a kid comes to school unkempt or a home is messy … no one thinks of the dad,” said Alice Domar ’80, a psychologist who has written several books on women’s issues. “The blame is going to fall on the mother.”

And the pressure and expectations for mothers rise with each rung of the corporate ladder.

“We expect top-level professional women to carry on just like their male counterparts,” Arendell said. “Family is not to interfere with work. Women are still expected to manage their children and homes, but they have to do it in a way that doesn’t impinge on their profession.”

Maura Shaughnessy ’83 learned how unforgiving the male-dominated investment world could be when she tried to care for her newborn daughter and her ailing mother and to work as a portfolio manager for Boston-based MFS Investment Management.

“Back in 2001 there weren’t many women working in my department, never mind women who had children,” Shaughnessy said. “The people who were in charge at the time were not particularly respectful of my responsibilities at home. My life was pretty miserable during that period.”

Eight years later, Shaughnessy is now a senior vice president with MFS. Though she is respected at the investment company, where her $2.4-billion MFS Utilities fund was recognized in 2006 for its outstanding 10-year performance, there are still times when family needs can overwhelm. For most of 2007 she managed several utility funds while tending to her dying father.

“I’d get to work at five-thirty in the morning, work till two, and then spend the evening with my father,” Shaughnessy said. “My performance and my numbers were good, but I was exhausted.”With a faltering economy and tightening budgets, the pressure is likely to increase. Struggling companies may be less sympathetic to a mother who has to stay home with a sick child.

“In this economy, a woman trying to juggle family and work could be a death knell,” Domar said. “Major corporations have their eye on one thing: profits. And they want someone who gives their all, gets in early and stays late.”

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