How more power and responsibility equal better balance.

By Lisa Belkin

Lisa Pennington is an example of many things: that a woman can be the managing partner of one of the nation’s largest law firms; that one romantic vacation in Italy can make a 46-year-old the mother of a newborn, even if she already has two teenagers, and that clients don’t gripe nearly as much as you might fear they will when a managing partner comes up pregnant. (One client even insisted that Pennington personally oversee his trial during her eighth month of pregnancy, because juries believe everything a pregnant women says).

As much as anything else, Pennington, of Baker and Hostetler LLP in Houston, is an example of the most intangible but crucial factor in the Life/Work equation: clout. For the past several years, I have written a column about life and work for the New York Times, and I have fielded thousands of e-mails from women (yes, most who write to me are still women) not one of whom feels they have all their balance bases covered. But if there is a sub-group that is far and away more on top of things, it is the women at the top.

This reality hit home about a year ago when I wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine about women who “opt-out” – who take their very hard-won degrees and leave the very fast track because they are not willing to make the sacrifices it would take to reach the top. When they look up to the C-suites they see more time, more responsibility, more stress. And they’ve had quite enough of all those things already.

In the tornado of conversation that followed that article I found myself on a panel before a crowd of Princeton-educated women, sharing a microphone with Heidi Miller, executive vice president and CEO of treasury and securities services, JPMorgan Chase. Miller had hated my article, partly because she feared she would arrive at her office the Monday morning after it appeared, to find a sea of female employees waving the magazine like a banner and announcing that they’d quit. But also because she said it didn’t describe the reality of her life. She did not feel torn, she said, between her children’s needs, and her company’s demands. She did feel like she was giving 100 percent of herself at home and at work. She wasn’t exactly sure why everyone was complaining.

What, I began to wonder, is the difference between the women who make it and the women who ratchet back their goals? Are they a different species altogether – a Darwinian weeding of the leadership population? Pennington’s example says this is not so. During her first round of motherhood, when both the work and the parenting were new, she describes feeling much more overwhelmed than she does this second time around. “I have been practicing law for 20 years and each year it has gotten easier,” she says. In other words, she is the same person. It is so many other things that have changed.

Is it as simple as having more money? Well, that definitely helps. “I have the financial largesse that derives from being on top of the heap,” says Sheila Smith, talking to me from the five-bedroom vacation home in Newport where she spends her weekends. Smith was born in Alaska back “when there was no infrastructure there,” she says. Her father was in the military, and her family lived in log cabins and trailer parks. Her life’s work took her on a circuitous route through teaching to social services to business school and she is now a principal and senior managing partner at Deloitte & Touche, in charge of all bankruptcy services in New England. “It’s easy to balance when I have a live-in housekeeper who picks up the dry cleaning, does the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning,” she says. “The money is a point that should not be discounted.”

Perhaps. But most of the women in my article – lawyers, bankers – were earning sufficient money to hire nannies and housekeepers before they opted out.  So salary alone is not the difference between feeling sanguine and overwhelmed. Staff, women at the top tell me, is in many ways more important than money, and by that they do not mean domestic staff.

“I believe it is more stressful to be a secretary than to be CEO where I can be in charge of my life,” says Kathryn Morrison, founder of SunStar, a financial marketing firm based in Alexandria, Va., with $2 million a year in revenues. She was also away for the weekend when we spoke – in St. Michael’s, Md. “I have a great manager for the company who is here at 8:30 every morning so I can come in at 10 when I like,” she says. “I can say, ‘here’s my schedule, you need to adjust your schedule to my schedule.’ I think nothing about walking into somebody’s office and saying, ‘I’m sorry for interrupting, I need to talk to you.’ Our office administrator, I interrupt her constantly during her day. It’s like her time is less valuable than my time, which, technically stated, it is.”

That control over the daily schedule translates into a broader flexibility and power. In other words, Clout. A few years ago, Theresa Zagnoli was planning on spending a Saturday afternoon at her son’s baseball game. Zagnoli is the CEO of Zagnoli McEvoy Foley, one of nation’s largest litigation consulting firms, and a client wanted her to spend the same Saturday traveling to Cleveland for a meeting. “Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have said ‘I can’t come,'” she says. But this time she did say no, and as a result ” the client packed up his witness and flew to Chicago.”

The women at the top of the totem poll say they that their message to those at the bottom is “hang in there, it will get better.” Don’t fear the top because it will derail your life; seek out the top because it will put your life on a more stable track.

Pennington had that thought recently when she sent a first-year associate to Dallas for a last minute hearing, rather than changing her schedule to go herself. “Years ago, that would have been me getting on that plane,” she says. “The woman who did go was very nice about it. One day I’ll be retired and she’ll take my place.”

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