Why you should care

Because it’s time to shrink the gender gap in leadership.

Nora Bloch was working for a corporate bank in Boston when her first child came along, leaving her with a dilemma that countless new moms face: quit, drop to part-time or find daycare. But she’d seen what happens when women go down the part-time route. “All it meant was they were working for free on off-days and taking conference calls in the bathroom while the baby cries,” Bloch says. Sarah Kitterman, who had two young children, worked at another bank in a similar role. Neither remembers how exactly it came about, but one of them raised the idea that, instead of going to part-time, they could share a job.

Now, one works from Monday to Wednesday, while the other covers Wednesday to Friday, leaving a day of overlap for the passing of the gauntlet. If a colleague says something to Bloch, it’s understood to be the same as telling Kitterman. They never second-guess one another in public. And clients can always trust that whomever they deal with will be 100 percent up-to-speed. Together, they’ve risen to senior loan officer status. “Instead of bringing in someone new, it’s valuable to keep two experienced, high-capacity individuals,” says Jessica Brooks, senior vice president for development and communication at Boston Community Capital. “It’s a model for the future of how organizations present themselves to the world.”

While Bloch and Kitterman have been trading off for years now, their little-known job-sharing approach is emerging as a possible solution to the intractable gender gap in leadership as well as a response to the 24/7 work cycle that, for better or worse, doesn’t look to be slowing down. Recently, corporate mammoths like Deloitte, DHL and Royal Bank of Scotland have expressed public support through the Job Share Project, while several European countries, including England, Germany and Switzerland, have actively been encouraging job shares for several years. It’s an idea that’s been slow to make its way across the pond — until last year, that is, when the coleaders of the consulting practice Mulberry Partners published the book Power Through Partnership, which offers page after page of high-profile female duos (from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to founders of the National Women’s Law Center Marcia Greenberger and Nancy Duff Campbell) and has sparked renewed interest.

Only about 20 percent of U.S. companies allow job sharing, compared to around half in the U.K.

Although the intricacies of carrying out a job share are many, the concept is simple: one job, one identity, two people. The model first really arose in the U.S. in the ’80s, and it can be used as a short-term solution or, as it turns out in most cases, a long-term arrangement. Often the role is split up by days, with a brief overlap to fill the other person in; the salary simply gets cut in half (although neither is likely to get full-time benefits). How’s this better than a part-time gig? Part-time jobs often require less skill and offer little room for advancement. “It’s a way for women to continue climbing the public ladder,” says Kate Bahn, an economist with the Center for American Progress.

Contrary to the “lean in” philosophy, Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy for the U.S. State Department, argued in an Atlantic article a few years ago that women (and men) could potentially have it all: “But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured,” she wrote. Some have gone so far as to say the gender revolution has come to a halt, a suggestion numbers support: Women hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, but when it comes to leadership positions, they account for less than 15 percent of executive officers, 8 percent of top earners and fewer than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. At least one reason for this disparity: the mommy gap.

As Meghan Gosk prepared for her second child, she was stuck working in an unsatisfying part-time position in the admissions department at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. With fellow mother and colleague Anna Millar faced with having to quit soon if she couldn’t find a new arrangement, the pair derived a detailed job-sharing proposal — down to how they’d create a joint email account and carefully handle confidential conversations with students. They would end up working in tandem for eight years and become a national model. Since then, they’ve seen nurses, teachers, reporters and C-suite execs successfully follow their path.

Yet, according to a Society for Human Resource Management study, only about 20 percent of U.S. companies allow job sharing, compared to around half in the U.K. Ariane Hegewisch, director of employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, says that’s partly to do with companies viewing job sharing as too contractually rigid and opting for more flexible plans. It’s also not suited for all fields and the success depends on how seamless the partners meld. Industries Hegewisch sees moving ahead tend to be more specialized, such as accounting and marketing. “It allowed us to have a career and identity without making our families suffer,” Millar says.

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