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Women. Leadership. Our Spouses: A topic which should be discussed more often

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

After receiving much attention on my recent post about Chanel appointing the first female CEO, and having discussions recently with my mentor/ friend/ ex-client Fazlyn Malek, I do think it’s time for us to highlight the importance of personal spouse when we discuss female leadership. (Didn’t you just imply in your last post that we shouldn’t use the term female CEO anymore? Why use this term now Larraine? You will find out why after reading this article)

Wait, haven’t we talked about this before? On and off we do see women thanking their men and increasingly their women for supporting and facilitating their career success. What prompted me to write this article is my personal feeling that there’s still not enough discussion on the “what” and “how” in choosing our spouses. In most female empowerment forums or women in tech/ finance communities, this crucial topic is usually neglected without any panel discussions at all. The speakers would mention the domestic support they receive from their husbands or wives but again the “what” and “how” is rarely mentioned, much less “taught” in these occasions and certainly not in Udemy or Coursera. To make things worse, our own mothers and fathers might be the worst teachers too. (Which I am going to elaborate below with my own anecdotes)

Is it because it’s still a taboo to talk about personal support in terms of husbands and wives? Or we seldom think about it? Whenever we come across this topic that inevitably entails love and romance, what we see is so-called love gurus teaching women how to hook a man or Cosmopolitan magazine guiding women on new sex positions. The discourse is still around attraction and retention of men with flirting techniques, grooming and oh yes, new tricks that would spice up the bedroom.

Before I begin to share the insights from my conversations with Fazlyn and my personal relationship experience, let me explain the cultural context so that my Western readers might better understand where we are coming from.

Desperate Chinese parents going out of their way to “help” reflects great generational divide

It is very common for Chinese parents aged between 55-69, including those in my hometown Hong Kong, to expect their kids to get married and have kids before they turn 30. In mainland China it could be 23 or 24. Recently a man in Guangzhou became a hit on the internet by posting videos on how his Chinese parents pressured him and his sister to get married by singing and dancing with lyrics saying, “Don’t you find yourself ashamed?” and calling him “single dog”. While those videos were meant to be funny and amusing, it’s not difficult to see the “great divide” and the utter disconnect between the generations.

In my own experience, starting from when I was 28, at around the same time my mum’s hypertension got worse, my mum got hysterical at times on why I was not dating and getting married. Like the Guangzhou parents, and same with my ex’s parents, lots of Chinese who are baby boomers or Gen X simply see marriage and having children as part of everyone’s life roadmap. In an age where their children live with 5G, NFT, instant messaging and all sorts of stress coming from global competition, they never consider whether their children are right husband/ wife/ parent materials or not.

They simply map their children’s lives by following socially constructed norms without asking themselves or their children: what is it that you want out of your life?

What positive impact do you want to create each day not just for yourself, but for others?

From agricultural society to Industrial 4.0

In the agricultural time when generation after generation practice the same manual routine and ritual of sowing seeds and harvesting in villages, the roadmap made sense from an economic point of view: you did need a lot of labour for the hard work. So, if the guys can do the hard work and the ladies can bear male heirs, you are fine.

But we are no longer living in the agricultural time. We are living in Industrial Revolution 4.0. For us millennials and Gen Z, the need to compete and differentiate ourselves in the job market is beyond our parents’ imagination. Yes, some of my high school and university friends have got married and started a family, but increasingly you see people like myself, who need more time in self-discovery and redefining who we are both in business and in personal space. With finite physical and mental energy, introverts like me simply don’t have the energy to meet up with friends as often as in our uni days, let alone going out romantically.

The all-important trio: world view, life outlook, individual & family values

The key problem for a lot of our lovely parents is not unlike corporates running towards their goals without first defining objectives and aligning with their mission and purpose.

Have we taught our children in asking the right questions to understand their own world view (世界觀), life outlook (人生觀), individual and family values (價值觀)?

In China yes, we still have the “funny” parents above, but increasingly young folks often discuss the consistent alignment in values and outlook when they look for life partners, i.e. 三觀一致. Sadly, my own mum never raised these crucial questions that will make or break marriages in the long run, but just kept on pressuring me to “quickly find a boyfriend!”, saying “your requirements must be too high!” before she witnessed what I went through 2 years ago.

When girls are single and busy laying foundation for their career success and reinvention, we got criticized for having unrealistic requirements about men, but when guys do the same, we call them real men dedicated to their career or “diamond bachelors” in Cantonese. It’s not just the generation of my parents. Even some of the girlfriends my age also justify their boyfriends neglecting them “because they wanna focus on their careers.” What about our own careers? Until the day we retire we all need to focus on our careers, so does it mean that we women must be the ones who always make sacrifices, who take being neglected as the norm? The dynamic between the genders is still far from equal.

Mothers seeing daughters (and sons and daughters-in-laws) as extensions of themselves

Just like what I wrote in my A-level English literature exam portfolio, it’s the women (the mothers) who are ironically the strongest influence in imposing these patriarchal social and gender stereotypes on the next generations. As Nancy Chodorow* explained, “mothers frequently see daughters as extensions of themselves.” From what I have experienced, witnessed and heard, this Guangzhou mum is only one of the many who also see their sons and future daughter in-laws as extensions of themselves.

my A-level Eng Lit. Portfolio

In one of the videos, the Guangzhou mum said over dinner that “I want to find a daughter-in-law who is as well-educated, gentle, and diligent as myself and can cook and take care of the house.” Her husband amusingly replied, “Then you can hire a well-educated nanny.”

The Guangzhou mum in the videos, my ex’s parents, my mum, and a lot of older folks still regard socio-economic status and personality as the criteria for evaluating whether this woman or man can “enter my house”. Both my mum and my ex’s mum placed nice personality as the No.1 requirement for their children’s future spouse. I am not saying they are wrong, but nice personality with good moral ethics is simply not enough anymore: how do we assign value to things – essentially how do we spend money as a household? How do we spend our time – do we hire helpers to work on household chores so that we can have free time to recharge, to take care of our kids and elderly parents, to have peace of mind? Or does your other half like to do everything on their own because they see this as a way to save money?

In essence how do you as a couple perceive opportunity cost? Like my high school teacher said, how you spend money and time as a couple determines the satisfaction and happiness of your marriage.

Keeping up with the times with new perspectives

The mindset embodied by most of the older Chinese parents was probably still OK in the 1970s or 1980s, but these days evaluating your future husband or wife is not unlike evaluating your senior management hire (or even a junior entry position depending on job nature):

are they emotionally resilient? Do they embrace a growth mindset and therefore possess learning agility? Finally, are they looking up?

Meaning are they aware of what’s happening not just in their own neighbourhood, city or country? Do they have the intellectual curiosity to understand and digest what’s happening around the world? All these can affect their career and income stability, which in turn will affect their marital well-being.

Marriage in Industrial Revolution 4.0 is just no longer the same as marriage back in the 1980s or 1970s. Clinging to old standards is just like corporates going through transformation without changing their mindset when approaching the processes and KPIs.

We need a new set of OKRs and KPIs for our business, just like we need to examine our personal life partner relationships with new perspectives.

This is a time when job security, financial stability and the macro socio-economic and political environment are all becoming more and more unpredictable and volatile.

Without teaching both our sons and daughters to fully understand their own values and life outlook and aligning those with a potential spouse before entering a relationship, marriage and raising kids, the risk of setting their personal lives up for failure just gets higher.

A lot of people might not realize that our professional success is largely dependent on our domestic stability and support. Imagine going home to arguing parents, unreasonable siblings, your other half expecting you to do all the household chores and parenting or your in-laws pressuring you to have kids - how on earth can you have the mental energy to deal with corporate transformation? With hybrid workplace, our personal lives and professional lives are more intertwined than ever. The need to have a well-balanced home space and empathetic family members has never become so important.

The real “what” and “how” we should be looking for in choosing our life partners, for both women and men

The “what” in choosing our life-time partners should go way beyond if they are hardworking, nice, or faithful because all these should be non-negotiable “basic requirements”. Parents should dig deeper in asking their children and themselves:

are we self-aware?

The “what” should be the consistent alignment of higher values and outlook, not just personality traits. Likewise, expecting your kids to start a family in times of crazy inflation is simply unreasonable, as not every household, even with a double income, can afford childcare and education. Now the “how” was beautifully described by the Guangzhou mum despite her traditional views on daughter-in-law requirements:

“There’s only one purpose for girls to get married: to be happy and emotionally satisfied. Marriage is essentially an ongoing process of reaching consensus.”

Indeed, we all need to reach consensus with our personal partners through different stages of life, and we can’t do this if we are not aligned on a deeper level (values, outlook, world view) which has been shaped and influenced heavily by our own parents, teachers, friends, and education we received. That means before we get serious, we should find out if we are aligned on the values and outlook first, and have discussions on where we can stretch ourselves and where we just need to say no.

All or nothing?? This mindset is still quite prevalent.

A 2017 HBR article titled “If You Can’t Find a Spouse Who Supports Your Career, Stay Single” suggested women should choose to have no partner at all if we can’t find one who can support our careers. Interestingly, if you guys can recall, in Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”, first published in 2013, and Carolyn Kepcher’s book “Carolyn 101: Business Lessons from The Apprentice's Straight Shooter”, published 8 years before Sandberg’s, both authors mentioned the importance of finding the right partner and how each person should split domestic duties. But usually people don’t quote this part but instead focus on the part about sitting at the table and how to navigate tricky office politics.

9 years since Sandberg published “Lean In” and 17 years since Kepcher established her fame as once the right-hand woman for Trump (back then he was not so controversial and widely hated), we still have Ali Wong lamenting the double standard on domestic household gender equality in her Netflix series.

There’s indeed a lot more to be done.

Conclusion: Men and women must evolve together

When there are more and more women climbing up the career ladder and can easily make more money than men, we need more men to be real partners at home instead of just being breadwinners. The career and economic dynamics are drastically different from even the 2000s. Just because we are the CEOs doesn’t mean that we are taking over everything, and it certainly doesn’t mean that men need to feel intimidated. In fact, we should teach men not to be intimidated when the opposite sex is achieving, but celebrate, embrace, and co-create a successful double income relationship. I personally find younger men are generally doing better than middle-aged ones in this regard. Encouragingly, there is an increasing number of Gen Z who hosts podcasts on empathy, on what social change they should bring etc.

It’s 2022, time for both men and women to see their partners’ emotional and mental support as a crucial success factor for their own career and financial success.

Things should no longer be such a binary opposition: either have a supporting partner or no partner.

The right question to ask is: do us women know who we are, what impact we want to create for this world? The same goes for men. And from there how do we co-create a mentally sustainable, emotionally resilient relationship that fuels our career and financial success.

“Larraine, you will never find another person who completely matches with your values and outlook. (Of course, I know, having 70% match is already enough in my opinion.) What’s important is that you both have a similar sense of humour: can you guys laugh together? And more importantly, can you guys grow together? It’s always helpful if you two can share the same passion on social causes. Now go find a man who shares the same cause with you and go change the world!”,

“It’s their (sons’ and daughters’) lives, they can do whatever they want. It’s their choice to enter marriage and to raise kids.”

Well-said Fazlyn, now I would really need you to learn Cantonese so that you can talk sense to a lot of Chinese mums lol.

*Nancy Chodorow is a renowned American scholar and psychoanalytic feminist. Her works include “The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender” (1978), “Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory” (1989) and “Femininities, Masculinities, Sexualities: Freud and Beyond” (1994)


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