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Childcare, housekeeper, and a personal assistant: Women are paying big bucks for support at home in order to reach the C-Suite

December 7, 2022, 5:12 PM UTC
Photo illustration of a woman in business attire being held up by a pile of hands.
Photo illustration by Victoria Ellis/Fortune; Original photos by Getty Images (3)

The idea of women “doing it all” has mostly been debunked, but the vast majority of female executives aren’t exactly shouting from the rooftops the whole truth about how they’re able to succeed personally and professionally. Typically, they have paid help or a stay-at-home partner—or both—assisting behind the scenes to make things run (more) smoothly. But in 2022, when it seems everyone is oversharing on social media, why is there still a stigma around working women outsourcing care and household tasks?   

Over the last decade, Molly McAllister has worked in five roles since joining Banfield Pet Hospital to develop medical education programs. Today, she’s the organization’s chief medical officer and senior vice president of veterinary affairs.

At work, McAllister is in charge of leading Banfield’s 18,000 veterinary professionals, building upon the latest research, and tackling the equity, inclusion, and diversity challenges within this field. At home, she’s a mother of two, with an 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, plus a terrier named Jack.

Photo courtesy of Molly McAllister

In order to be a strategic leader at work and present for the significant milestones—and everyday moments—at home, McAllister’s learned to delegate some of the daily tasks on her plate. She employs a part-time nanny who also helps out with errands and dog-walking, pays for after-school care and a home-cleaning service, as well as uses digital tools like Instacart to help get her grocery shopping done. Not to mention the professional assistant she has helping with the logistics and tactical administration at work.

“Most of us get to this point in our careers, and we can do the heck out of things. Regardless of my mental state, if you give me a list of tasks to do, I can do the heck out of that list,” McAllister says, but she admits that it’s helpful to offload some of the daily tasks to free up her time to focus on the important things. 

The services McAllister employs may not seem like a lot, but she says being able to delegate even some of the workload has saved her, especially given her long work hours and necessary corporate travel. She’ll come home from a work trip, for example, and instead of trying to scramble to get to the grocery store on her way home from the airport or the office, she can order groceries delivered via Instacart. 

Two-thirds of U.S. working women with at least one direct report pay for some type of hired help—from childcare to cleaning services to personal trainers to grocery delivery services like Instacart, Amazon Fresh, and Shipt. That’s according to a poll Fortune conducted in conjunction with The Muse and Fairygodboss of nearly 400 women who identified as managers, directors, vice presidents, C-suite executives, or founders. 

Among women at the VP level, in the C-suite, or founders, the percentage using some type of paid service jumps to 75%. 

The cost of these services does add up. On average, respondents polled are spending slightly over $500 per month. McAllister estimates she spends close to 20% of her income on childcare and household help, noting that she pays a bit more for childcare because her kids split their time between her home and her ex-husband’s. 

“There's that piece of how much per hour does it cost, and how much per hour do I bring home,” she says of her mental math around the expense tradeoffs. She wasn’t willing to pay for a service like house cleaning until she felt like she could definitely afford it. “There is a tangible, emotional relief to walk in my house and have it clean. That positively impacts what I can give to my job.” 

Hiring professional and household help is something that many working women agonize over and discreetly employ like it’s a dirty little secret, fearing they’ll come across as entitled, incapable, or worse. Yet for most men, it’s a given. Having an assistant at work and a stay-at-home wife as well a plethora of paid caregivers and household staff is the norm for most male executives. There’s no guilt trip, and they’re rarely seen as elitist. 

And when it comes down to it, men are simply more willing than women to pay for help—from childcare, household tasks, and even elder care—according to the Entrepreneurs Guide to the Care Economy report by The Holding Co. When it comes to childcare, for example, men were 29% less likely than women to say they felt they needed to do it all themselves without paid help.

More women in leadership roles with fewer resources at work to support them

The number of women in leadership roles is on the rise. In 1998, only two women were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Today that number has grown to 46—and more are expected to join those ranks in the next two months. By the end of January 2023, for the first time ever, 10% of Fortune 500 companies will be led by women. 

But even as more women have broken into the executive ranks, they're still expected to manage most of the household tasks. Women in leadership are four times as likely as similarly-situated men to be doing all of the housework and caregiving, according to LeanIn's 2022 Women in the Workplace report. And the amount of support corporate leaders receive at work is on the decline—even as companies expect more out of employees. Since 1950, productivity per worker has increased by over 300%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet the days of Mad Men, where seemingly even mid-level managers had a personal secretary to take care of both business arrangements and children’s birthday gifts, are long over. Some C-suite leaders may get an executive assistant, but the support is strictly related to business activities. Moreover, most workers, even executives, have less paid holiday, vacation, and parental leave to show for the boosted productivity.

Instead, employees are generally expected to manage intense work schedules alongside juggling household tasks and caring for kids. If both parents work, that also means securing domestic help—not an easy task these days given the current childcare staffing crisis and a general dearth of caregivers. Women typically bear the brunt of this responsibility, even those at the top. And even when they're able to balance it all thanks to a household staff that supports their careers and home life, they face the pervasive stigma that they’re a bad mother or a bad wife or bad leader if they pay for help. 

"Women have been given this idea in how we were raised—or what we saw in the media—that our job is to make other people's lives easier and to take care of other people," says Sarah Bond, Microsoft's corporate vice president for game creator experience and ecosystem at Xbox. "Fundamentally, it sort of runs through all of these little subtle messages that you've been given. And so when you do something to take care of yourself, or give yourself balance, you feel bad about it."

Courtesy of Sarah Bond

Bond, who is a mother of two young children, says over the years, she’s employed folks to help out with her kids and the household stuff, as well as uses services like Amazon Fresh to help free up some of her time. “We’ve used every tool that's out there at various times,” Bond tells Fortune, but she says she definitely used to feel that guilt and anxiety. 

Then about 10 years ago, she realized that as a leader, getting help and taking care of yourself isn’t a selfish act, it can be selfless. “In a few minutes with the team, you can either massively motivate and unblock them—or just incinerate them with a few words. So if you haven't taken care of yourself, if you're not in a balanced place, if you can't be thoughtful, if you're rushing and not really listening, or distracted—the impact on the people around you can go really one way or the other.”

“Once I realized that it's totally okay to have somebody else do something for me, I started to really think all the time about what are the things that only I can do, and what are the things that somebody else on the team can do—and actually would like the opportunity to do,” Bond says. “How do I use the hours I have to give the team the best of me that I can, and the best of my thinking?”

With fewer opportunities, women worry about being seen as ineffective

That lack of equal representation at the top may be one of the reasons female executives don’t talk about paying for help. Only about 27% of C-suite executives in the U.S. are women, according to LinkedIn’s 2022 Gender Equity in the Workplace report. About a third of VP-level executives are women, while 44% of those in director positions are female. In order to get promoted and be seen as effective, many times women are far more quiet about asking for support at work or at home. 

And this can not only set up unrealistic expectations, it can lead to mental and physical health problems. Nearly four in 10 women in the U.S. reported that stress affected their daily lives at least once in the past year compared to just 29% of men, according to a survey focused on mental health released by Ipsos in October. 

“It's easy to run out of gas. I think a lot of women could go really far and for a long, long time, and they find themselves just in a place of just utter burnout,” says Sarah Mensah, vice president and general manager of Nike North America. 

Mensah, who is the first Black woman to take the reins of Nike's North America business, says it’s critical as a senior leader to have a really pragmatic point of view of what's a "has to be done" task, a “would like to be done" task, and what’s a “super aspirational to be done" task on your to-do list—and be clear on which bucket your daily to-dos fall into.

“Be gentle with yourself around what's reasonable to expect from yourself and build in time to build your own energy,” Mensah says, adding she employs an aide to help with her adult son with special needs and uses other paid services to help free up some of her time

“I'm so aware that for a woman executive to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, I have a housekeeper and I have a nanny and I have a whatever’—it's not very inspiring to somebody who might be at a different level in their career,” Mensah tells Fortune. But that doesn’t make the need for help and support any less real. Giving younger women realistic insight into how it actually all gets done, even if it's not glamorous, is critical.

Both men and women pursuing a career in the C-suite or other leadership positions need to understand that it’s a “team sport,” Mensah says. In the past, it was primarily about women supporting men's careers, but that script needs to be flipped that so both partners equally support each others’ career goals. 

Candice Lu, executive vice president at Qvest U.S., at a recent women in tech panel.
Photo courtesy of Candice Lu

Outsourcing what you can so you can be present for what's important

For Candice Lu, childcare was critical when she was pregnant with her youngest son and also launching her company in 2013. She is one of the founders of OnPrem Solution Partners, a media and entertainment consulting firm that was acquired by Qvest in 2020. Lu stayed on as an executive vice president. 

Without family nearby, Lu says the only way she could get it all done was by hiring a cleaning service and a full-time nanny, who’s been with the family since her oldest (now 13) was born. She spends an estimated 10% of her salary on this help.

“You can't outsource emotional connection with your children. You can get help with the driving, you can outsource the cooking—and that is what our nanny is generally focused on now. But helping with homework, talking about their day, understanding what it's like to be 13…I cannot outsource that,” Lu says. 

Lu and others note, however, that the type of help they’ve needed has evolved as their children have gotten older and their work responsibilities shift. As McAllister contemplates the next phase of her career and personal journey, for example, she’s considering bringing onboard a chief of staff position at work to help her step up her game.  

“There's an opportunity—particularly with larger leadership teams or with really broad leadership roles, which mine has become—to have that person who's an admin on steroids. Somebody who can bring that strategic vision to the work and help organize it,” she says. 

McAllister is also intrigued by hiring what she calls a “personal life personal assistant,” someone to help organize tasks like making doctors’ appointments and coordinating her family’s schedule. “It's hard to be strategic, and it's way harder to be strategic at home than it is at work, particularly when there's kids and spouses and pets who all need something from you right now,” McAllister says. 

“Maybe professionally, it's more accepted to get help, to delegate. But I feel like as women we often tend to look at our personal life and feel like we have to do it all,” she says. “But how much more can you accomplish strategically when you remove some of the emotional burden?”

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