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Merryn's Blog

One good career takes two people

Why are there so few women at the top of the corporate world? Maybe it's because it's impossible to have a happy family life when both parents are working 60-70 hours a week, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

I spoke at my old school on Sunday. I was flattered to be asked and being there made me feel almost nostalgic for my school days. But it also made me think yet again about my old school friends.

We were lucky. We got just about the best education money can buy. Then we mostly went on to top universities. But when I run my friends through my mind now, I note that almost none of them work full time. Sure some are wildly successful, but the vast majority are very, very far from the boards of listed companies or advisory roles in the Treasury. Mostly they'd describe themselves as mothers.

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This is the kind of thing that drives equality gurus mad. Why would women with Oxbridge degrees end up at home rather than in positions of power? There are all sorts of answers to this out there and I've written about several of them during the debate about quotas for boards but thinking about the women I know I've thought of another one, one that might actually explain things.

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What happens when you send a very well educated women to a great university? She meets very well educated men. Odds are she'll marry one of them, or one of their well-educated friends. Not right away, but at some point in the decade after meeting them. Post university they'll both go on to good careers. Probably the kind that identified by various columists as "extreme". To get ahead they'll work 60-70-hour weeks; they'll travel endlessly; and when they aren't actually working they'll be socialising in a worky kind of way.

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For a while that might seem like a good lifestyle choice. But at some point perhaps when they have their first or second child, perhaps just when they note that they haven't spent an evening alone for a month they will start to realise that these days one big career takes two people. If both people work 70 hours a week, there's no one to make sure the house is organised; that their social life is varied; that the garden looks like they want it too; that the children are properly prioritised (and know that they are); or even just to book their holidays, get the car MOT-ed and remember where the passports are.

So eventually the only sanity-preserving step there is (for most people there are always exceptions) is for one partner to stop working. For the less successful this might not be an option but for our very well-educated couple it is both of them are making real money. So who stops? Sometimes it is the man (and a lot more often than it was) but still it is mostly the women.

So there you go. The better we educate our girls the more likely they are to marry well-educated and hence well-off men and then to both need to and be able to afford to chuck in their own careers.

It is not as if my old friends aren't doing anything: they sit on school boards, do charity work, and help me out of all my childcare emergencies. So I don't know whether it matters or not. But the fact that the better educated a woman is, the more likely she is to leave the work force, might be the best explanation I've come up with yet for the dearth of women at the top of the corporate tree.

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