If you’ve ever worked in business you’ve probably noticed the overwhelming number of women in administrative positions. According to the census, 96% of administrative assistants in 2010 were women and the 4% who were men in these roles earned salaries 16% higher than their female counterparts (which are, by the way, for both sexes, just three times the federal poverty level of $11,000/year for a single person).
Even as you track administrative assistants up the food chain to operations managers, bookkeepers, and at the highest levels, chief operating and financial officers, you’ll find more than double the number of women in these roles than in the the highest leadership role — in 2015, 58 CFOs of Fortune 500’s were women while only 23 CEOs boasted a set of ovaries.
This used to really bother me. The ever-prevalent image of a pencil-skirted woman clicking rapidly behind a confident, mildly-graying male CEO grated the deepest bowels of my sense of gender equality. And as a business administrator myself (though more likely to be spotted donning blue jeans and work boots), I couldn’t help but wonder: am I the 21st-century reincarnation of that 1940’s pencil-skirted woman? Am I doing the proverbial scribble-of-fury while power and privilege walks two steps ahead of me?
I am a natural executor — have been since the tender age of eight or nine when I directed my first fundraiser for The Rainforest on a busy pedestrian through-way in my neighborhood. I am even recognized as a graduate-level organizer by the American Library Association.
As such, what has continued to irk me for quite some time is the thus-looming existential question that cannot be ignored: am I a naturally great organizer who happens to be a woman, or a naturally great organizer because I am a woman? And then, of course, the vital follow-up question: So what?
At home I am the de-facto financial planner. My husband will take every opportunity to plead ignorance and feign confusion at the very notion of saving for retirement or setting up a 529 college account (mobile check deposits seem to push him to the bleeding edge of sanity).
At first I felt a glib sense of pride when he would publicly defer to me as the family financial guru, knowing that until just a few decades ago women hardly existed in the profession, and until just a few more decades ago, women barely had a say in the family finances. (My grandmother, for example — born in 1923 — never knew how much money she had until the day my grandfather died in 2008.) But after deeper investigation, I question whether much has really changed.
My husband still has an earning potential double or triple mine, therefore holds a certain inherent financial power in the family regardless of how much he actually takes home (which, in 2016, was exactly equal to my own booty). And even though I manage the day-to-day activities of our family finances, like depositing checks, setting up accounts, and buying or selling securities, my husband still has very clear, sometimes even rigid, positions on our high-level investment and savings strategies, like how much of our portfolio to keep liquid or how much risk we can tolerate.
Much to my dismay, I realized recently that I am still responsible for nearly 100% of the administrative work, while my husband participates briefly but decisively in the top level strategy, much like a CEO might quickly answer his pencil-clicking secretary’s long list of operational questions like — did you deposit that check yesterday? I am going to buy this and that — okay? and (the most terribly cliche, yet even more terribly true one) — your son’s birthday is tomorrow and I’ve already wrapped his present, do you want to sign the card?
In a vacuum I may not mind being the family administrator; I like to organize, and I’m good at it. What’s difficult to stomach is knowing that the world looks down on this skill set as less important, intellectual, or desirable.
There is much written, like this profile on the Starr Family, that explores the family unit using a business framework. And within this line of inquiry, husbands are often equated to CEOs, and wives, to CFOs. There is also much written about the ultimate business marriage — CEO and CFO, regardless of gender— and how the two can operate as dynamic duo, pilot/co-pilot, leader/right-hand (wo)man, or in the example above, husband/wife.
In a lot of cases this gendered division of labor seems to work pretty well, which brings us back to the So What.
For me the So What comes about when we acknowledge the accomplishments of the CEO more than the CFO; when we value one more highly than the other in credit and compensation; when we allocate more power to one than the other. If it truly is a dynamic duo, then both must be equally critical to success.
I recently came across a 1970’s vegetarian cookbook called Laurel’s Kitchen, and an opening section titled The Keeper of the Keys insightfully illuminates the power and responsibility of the wife as pre-industry CFO:
“Traditionally, the world over, the woman in a house has been known as the 'Keeper of the Keys.' To hold the keys to the household, to its storerooms, attics, chests, and cupboards, was a position of great responsibility and, therefore, of great honor. In a season of impoverishment, it was the woman’s wise allocation of limited supplies that would see the family through, and in times of plenty, it was her foresight that provided for future needs.”
In the early days of farm life and homesteading there was a clear division of labor based on gender, and that division of labor was vital in keeping the family alive. No one on those farms would have for a single moment been so bold as to think they could go for a day, an hour, a minute without the strategic planning or financial management skills these first-generation female CFOs brought to the table.
I propose we re-envision these roles as equally necessary counterparts of the single metric that trumps all others: survival (whether in family or business).
If we do, we can set our sights toward the next challenge — a shared leadership model that, while often discouraged in business, has been proven by evolution for centuries.