Great, Man. Investing men in women’s professional success.

Vass Bednar

“Behind every great man, there’s a great woman.”

Who knows where that saying came from? But it’s cringe-worthy, right? We’re giving the woman (a wife) a little credit for their man’s success in an effort to reduce their invisibility. “You contributed!” we wink. It’s hard to get – or stay – behind that kind of condescension.

Today’s spotlight has re-trained on great women.  A sort of contemporary novelty, society is fascinated by and fixated on highly successful North American women: those who hold high public office or run Fortune 500 companies. Hungrily, we scrutinize them for their habits, history, femininity, marital status and motherhood with incipient incredulity. But rather than arousing societal pride, they’re raising eyebrows.

The resultant public debate regarding a woman’s ability to be ‘successful’ is increasingly uncomfortable. We are shocked by Yahoo CEO’s Marissa Mayer’s private nursery and elimination of telecommuting. We sneer at the insight of  “Lean In” author and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg. Heck, we even smirk at actress Jessica Alba and the launch of her book “Honest Life” and well-intentioned company.  And let’s not even start on Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP.

Wading into this mud fest requires bravery. Take trailblazer Anne-Marie Slaughter with her infamous Atlantic article on Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. Similarly pessimistic is Hannah Rosin’s daring prediction of the End of Men.

Why is it solely female leaders pontificating on professional leadership and healthy familial relationships? What’s missing from this contemporary controversy?


See, this is a simply not the next level in the Battle of the Sexes. It’s the battle of a sex.  And that we’ve confined these debates to the Sisterhood is part of the ‘problem.’

A further shortcoming is how we over-focus on accomplished women as individuals and ignore their context as ½ of a couple (common!). It is perplexing that males have been glaringly absent from this public debate. I’d like to see some men courageously make a splash by championing female talent and highlighting the innovative ways that they accommodate women’s procreation to promote success and satisfaction in the workplace.  How’s that for leadership? I need CEOs, millionaires, thought leaders and authorities to get on the mic and champion ingenious workplace reforms that facilitate a woman as both a worker and a mother.

I believe that women can have it all. But I don’t think they can do it all alone – and that is an important difference.  Is it up to husbands and partners to help? Partially. The private sector has a role to play, too; in recognizing flexible hours, honouring the ability to telecommute, accounting for lieu time and respecting a schoolyard’s calendar.  And so do policy-makers. We need to get early childhood education right and offer affordable daycare options to eliminate the disincentive of working and paying for high-quality childcare.

As for economic competitiveness and productivity concerns – you need humans to have human capital. And guess who makes those? Women.

This feminist debate is not a woman’s one – it’s a serious policy challenge with economic consequences for everybody.  And it’s irrational and irresponsible to have women be the sole contributors in this important debate.  This fish needs a bicycle!

Behind and beside every great woman, we’re going to need a great man. Great, man.

Vasiliki (Vass) Bednar is an Action Canada Fellow and a member of the MPP class of 2010.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dina bednar says:

    Excellent piece! I always thought that behind a successful man there was a surprised woman! I am very aware how we are repressed, oppressed by language. Policy makers, educators, all of us have to slow down and become more intentional about how we language our reality. I think the first step is deconstructing and challenging accepted “truths” about men and women. There is an old term – gylany, that describes an equal partnership, may be Michael Jackson’s song : it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white needs a lyric change. Your piece slowed me down enough to digest why the current time mag. Edition with a successful woman on the cover irritated me on sight. Write on vass!

  2. bednarva says:

    Thanks Dina [Mom]. I look forward to discussing why the Time Magazine annoyed you, who was on it (Sheryl Sandberg I think – Vol 181 No 10), and whether you bought it. It strikes me that we are slow to permit women to be “successful” if they are “only” successful professionally (in a traditional economic way) w/o taking on a strong domestic role as well. There seems to be a feminine price or premium and I’m not sure if I want to or will be able to pay it when I “grow up.”

    PS. Don’t forget your pseudonym, “Clint Eastwood.”

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