Every businesswoman who acquires any public profile has her family life raked over: How does she do it? What are the trade offs? What are the social and personal costs of her success? Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg is just the latest victim of this too-familiar trope, with other women and entrepreneurs prying into her childcare arrangements and wringing their hands with self-righteous disapproval. Some of this is good old- fashioned misogyny; after all, men don’t get such scrutiny and few people have asked how much time Bill Gates spends with his kids. But female leaders get a lot of attention too because there is a real hunger—felt by men and women—to understand how to combine business and family successfully. We all face this challenge and we’re eager for inspiration.
Let’s get a few facts straight first.
1. Most women work. Most mothers work. Most parents work. How families balance the needs of work, children and, often, their own parents, is not a female issue: it’s a human issue. Even singletons have parents who, as they age, will need care. As everyone lives longer and as kids stay home longer, integrating family and work becomes a permanent, not temporary, challenge.
2. Family demands don’t make it less likely that women will become entrepreneurs; it may make it more likely. The fact that more than 10 million private companies are owned or controlled by women shows that we aren’t rarities. Why do women start their own businesses? Because they hope that they will find in their own companies the kind of flexibility so often denied them by more conventional corporations. Or as the fabulous Doreen Marks of Otis Technology once said to me: “When you own the company, it doesn’t matter which 80 hours a week you work.” Parents don’t mind working hard. They do mind working in rigid environments that won’t accept that there is a life beyond the job.
3. Everyone needs support. Sheryl Sandberg has nannies. I had a nanny. I now have family and friends. No parent thrives without a network of supporters and backup. My own experience is that often it is those without the money for paid help who have the most reliable, emotionally-rich relationships. What parents do not need is the intrusive criticism of others who claim to know best. Every family is different and creates its own solutions.
In my study of female entrepreneurs, I never encountered a lack of ambition or any kind of trade-off that implied that driven businesswomen loved their children less. What I did find was an energetic determination to prove that business could be done better, that companies could be more flexible, and that the resulting engagement and commitment made life and work better for everyone: both men and women.
So I don’t buy a lot of the you-can’t-have-it-all criticism and envy that surrounds Sandberg. Having it all is hard, sure. All entrepreneurship is hard; that is why so many of us love it: because when we succeed, we know we’ve achieved something meaningful. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun and everyone would be doing it.