Working Moms Recalibrate Corporate Life
Amelia Williams Hardy is undaunted by busy schedules, but she also recognizes that daily life can quickly deteriorate into chaos when both parents are corporate executives trying to raise four children.
Hardy is vice president of inclusion and diversity strategic initiatives at Best Buy. Her husband, Cordell, is vice president of global corporate research and development operations at 3M. Their children are Elijah, 3; Eden, 10; Elise, 13; and Isaac, 16.
“We live by our Google family calendar,” Hardy says. “I always say, ‘If it’s not on the calendar, then it doesn’t exist.’ ”
But Hardy’s carefully constructed calendar was rendered irrelevant in March 2020, when Covid-19 forced her children’s schools to close, and she and her husband shifted into work-from-home mode.
The Woodbury couple had to improvise.
Navigating the ‘Work/Life Sway’
For years, executive women have talked about their desire to achieve work/life balance. But veteran journalist Joann Lublin says that elusive balance has been replaced by the concept of “work/life sway,” which is embraced by young women business leaders.
“They deliberately move back and forth between the professional and personal sides of their digital-centric lives, accepting inevitable and aggravating disruptions such as taking youngsters to medical checkups during the workday,” Lublin wrote in her new book.
“I had the dining room table for the first couple of months,” Hardy says. “It’s not good for your back and neck.” Cordell Hardy was using the home’s office, and the three oldest children often did their homework there, too.
“The challenge was if he was on video calls, which mainly he was, then we’d spread out,” Hardy recalls. “So you would get my youngest daughter working at the kitchen table, my oldest daughter working in my youngest son’s room, and then my oldest son would usually be in his room. We needed enough space to spread out so that you could still hear the conversations that you were a part of on the Zoom calls.”
Elijah’s day care center has remained open throughout the pandemic, but Hardy says he’s been at home anytime he showed cold symptoms or had any illness.
“That was hard, because he would be jumping in the background on my sofa or in the Zoom camera,” Hardy says.
“It’s all a blur,” is how she describes the early weeks of working from home and overseeing her children’s instruction. “I felt guilty that I wasn’t able to help them more,” Hardy says. “We were still working and weren’t able to spend the full time with them that we needed to.”
The disruption that Covid-19 has caused for working mothers worries advocates of gender parity in corporate America.
“During Covid, you’ve got so many more personal household responsibilities that women are juggling, on average, more than men,” says Kweilin Ellingrud, a senior partner in the Minneapolis office of McKinsey & Co. “[Women] are stagnating at work, and so they’re less likely to get the promotion or take on new challenges.”
The annual Women in the Workplace study, released in September and conducted for McKinsey and Lean In, showed that the pandemic exacerbated the challenges women already face carrying heavy loads at work and at home. Some working women are “downshifting their careers,” Ellingrud says, while others are thinking about “stepping out of the workforce altogether because right now there are just too many things going on.”
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“We don’t have traditional roles. My husband does most of the cooking and meal planning, and I tend to do most of the activities.”
—Amelia Williams Hardy, vice president of inclusion and diversity strategic initiatives, Best Buy
‘It’s a Catch-22’
Hardy, 45, doesn’t plan to downshift her career, but she acknowledges that she and her husband regularly talk about the family challenges associated with two demanding careers.
“It’s a tricky conversation and it’s hard,” she says. “It’s a Catch-22. I think we both want each other to succeed and do what’s best for the other, and I think we also want that for ourselves. It’s an ebb and flow for us. It definitely is an ongoing conversation. It’s a conversation that I don’t think is going to stop until we retire.”
As a Black woman who has reached the vice president level at Best Buy, a publicly traded company, Hardy is part of a small number of BIPOC women nationally. The recent McKinsey study documented the gender gap that still exists in the corporate pipeline. Just 19 percent of C-suite jobs are held by white women, and only 3 percent are held by women of color. At the vice president level, white women occupy 24 percent of the jobs, with women of color in 6 percent of the positions.
Hardy, a native of Overland Park, Kansas, initially wanted to be a doctor and earn her undergraduate degree at a historically black college. “I grew up in a suburb that was predominantly white,” she says. “My whole experience growing up, I never had a teacher of color. I was usually the only child of color in my class. I wanted to experience something different.”
Multiple internships piqued her interest in business, and she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Xavier University of Louisiana. After finishing her MBA at Tulane University, she accepted a job at 3M in 2000 and climbed the ranks to global business unit manager over a 14-year run.
She married Cordell Hardy in 2003, after meeting him at Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul, where they were both part of the church’s young adult ministry. When they first met, Cordell was finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, and the couple knew they both had strong career ambitions.
When firstborn Isaac arrived, it kicked off the discussions about how to juggle children and careers. “Being a new parent, I was nervous to send Isaac to day care,” Hardy says, so she and her husband hired a full-time nanny, a young woman they knew from their church who was taking a year off of studies before beginning law school.
“After that, we put our kids in day care,” Hardy says. “Then when we moved to a bigger house when I was pregnant with our third child, we realized that we needed more help. And that’s when we actually started looking into au pairs.”
Financial strain of child care
Their local insurance agent recommended that they try au pairs, which typically involves a short-term contract arrangement with someone from abroad who lives with the family and takes care of the children. The Hardys employed au pairs until about two or three years ago, and then returned to employing nannies.
It takes two to accommodate two demanding careers. The morning nanny helps get Elijah up and off to day care in the morning, while the afternoon nanny picks him up and helps with after-school activities. When the pandemic hit, the Hardys furloughed their nannies to follow safety protocols about limiting virus spread. After they learned more about Covid-19, they hired two new nannies, who are now part of their Covid bubble.
About six years ago, after Cordell’s mother retired, she moved from Philadelphia to Woodbury so she could help with driving her grandchildren to events and taking them to doctor’s appointments.
Before the pandemic, Hardy says, her Kansas-based mother also pitched in. “If Cordell was gone to Asia for a couple of weeks, she would come up and help during that time,” she says.
Hardy acknowledges that her family has spent a huge amount of money on child care. “The accessibility of affordable child care at all levels is really hard to find,” she says, which is a major issue that can stymie women’s careers.
In her personal life, Hardy says, she’s talked to friends early in their careers who asked aloud whether it’s “worth it” to hold certain jobs, because their salaries might equal or be less than their child care costs.
“The child care thing is big,” Hardy says. “The government can help with that, companies can help with that—whether through subsidization or policies to make it more equitable and accessible.”
Hardy says that she and her husband are united in balancing out the work of family life. “We don’t have traditional roles,” she says. “My husband does most of the cooking and meal planning, and I tend to do most of the activities.”
In their case, she says, they both have “the mindset” to play the position that’s needed at the given time. “People have to really be in it and intentional about making it work,” Hardy says, “and not holding so tightly to any stereotypical or familiar roles.”
Joann Lublin, author of the new book Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life, interviewed baby boomer executives and women holding executive roles in their 30s and 40s. “The calculus has changed in terms of the sharing of power on the home front,” Lublin tells TCB. “This younger generation of executive moms tend to pick as their partners or husbands or wives individuals who share their outlook about co-parenting and also being partners in terms of the domestic tasks.”
Blazing her own path
Karen Parkhill, 55, the chief financial officer of Medtronic, just missed the cutoff for the baby boomer generation, which contained what Lublin describes as trailblazer women executives.
Early in her career, Parkhill encountered the vestiges of male domination in investment banking.
A graduate of Sacred Heart Academy, a girls Catholic high school in Springfield, Illinois, Parkhill originally thought she wanted a career in medicine. But she shifted gears after three semesters at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It was an adviser actually who steered me toward the business school and finance because it was related to my love of math,” Parkhill recalls. She ultimately earned undergraduate degrees in business administration and mathematics.
She began her professional career at a regional investment bank that’s now part of Dain Rauscher, doing public finance work on municipal bonds for cities, counties, and other government units.
“One of the things that I tell women now is, ‘Never, ever put your personal life on hold for your professional life.’ ”
—Karen Parkhill, chief financial officer, Medtronic
Three years later, she enrolled in a full-time MBA program at the University of Chicago. She thought what she learned at Chicago’s Booth School of Business would be her ticket to the big leagues of investment banking.
She was right. She was hired by JP Morgan in 1992 and moved to New York. But she had a complicated personal life. She was dating Jeff Parkhill, whom she had met as a fellow business school student, and he had been hired to work for Kraft Foods in Chicago. “We had a long-distance relationship for almost two years,” Parkhill says, until she was able to land a job in JP Morgan’s new Chicago office.
The couple married on Dec. 31, 1994, and planned to have children.
“Sadly, back at that time in investment banking, there were very few senior women role models,” Parkhill says. “And there was this unspoken almost-rule that you shouldn’t have children before you were a vice president. I can’t think of any women back then who had children at a younger career age.”
Parkhill followed the cues of the other JP Morgan women. “I honestly waited until I was a vice president, and by that time we were older, and we had trouble getting pregnant,” she says. “So we ended up having to go through in vitro [fertilization], which is why we were blessed to have twins.” Hayden and Hunter are now 21.
The couple later adopted their daughter, Cheney, who is 14.
“Things turned out fine,” Parkhill says. “But one of the things that I tell women now is, ‘Never, ever put your personal life on hold for your professional life.’ ”
Before the twins arrived, Parkhill needed to come up with a child care solution. “Both my husband and I had big jobs, and we both traveled a lot,” Parkhill says. “We needed to have the most flexibility that we could have. We had one nanny for the first two years of the boys’ lives, and then we hired our second nanny. She is still with us and she is part of our family.”
For a good portion of her career, Parkhill says, she managed to get promoted by “just working harder than the next person to really prove myself.” Working in the male-oriented investment banking sector, women tended to create their own breaks.
“There were a few really great men along the way in my career, and all of them were men who either had a spouse who had their own career or had daughters who were ambitious and they wanted their daughters to have strong careers,” she says.
Today Parkhill is the executive sponsor of the Medtronic Women’s Network subgroup Commit to Connect, which bolsters the corporation’s women vice presidents around the globe. Parkhill says they offer mentors, sponsors, vice president group sessions and other support to help retain and promote the women into more senior positions at Medtronic.
Parkhill, who serves on the board of American Express, landed the plum Medtronic CFO job in 2016 after serving as CFO of the Comerica financial services company. She got on the CFO track after making what some might view as a risky move.
“I took a year sabbatical between my investment banking career and my CFO career,” she says, taking time off about 15 years ago. “I knew that I wanted to do something different, and it was impossible for me to figure out, when I was on the investment banking treadmill, what that was.”
Following the sabbatical, she became the CFO for JP Morgan’s commercial banking business.
She’s encouraged women executives at Medtronic to take time off, adding when “they come back to the company, they haven’t missed a beat.” She contends the sabbaticals are important for people who have long and challenging careers.
Taking a career ‘pause’
Liz Deziel, 41, a former senior vice president at U.S. Bank, is currently enjoying a sabbatical that she granted herself.
In late October, she posted on LinkedIn: “Today was my last day with U.S. Bank. I’m thrilled to share that my next move is to hit pause on my career and spend time with our kids.”
She noted that over 15 years with U.S. Bank, she had moved from an administrative assistant to senior vice president, and along the way she earned an MBA through evening graduate school and she passed her Certified Financial Planner (CFP) exam. She appeared to be on the fast track in corporate America.
Now, she’s focused on supervising the distance learning of her daughters Scarlett, 9, and Noelle, 7, who are pupils at Garlough Environmental Magnet School in West St. Paul. Deziel’s husband, Tom Stukel, is a technology professional for their local school district.
“I think women would be more interested in [senior management] roles if they were convinced that the hours, the stress, the demands, and the culture would not suffocate their lives outside of work.”
—Liz Deziel, former senior vice president, U.S. Bank
The couple met when they were undergraduate students at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. “I was fiercely independent,” Deziel says, with a laugh. “I definitely wasn’t there searching for a husband, but I was lucky enough to meet him there.”
Tom was a peace studies major from the small town of Granite Falls, while Liz, a Burnsville native, had a self-designed liberal studies major, with philosophy and sociology emphasis areas. She also earned a minor in gender and women’s studies.
Their academic pursuits may have provided an early indicator of the egalitarian relationship they would develop. The couple married in September 2003.
After their daughter Scarlett was born, they came up with a child care plan that’s still somewhat rare. “The decision that we made for him to become a stay-at-home dad was one of the easiest decisions we ever made,” Deziel says. “I was loving my career and had just landed my first manager role, and I had completed my MBA in recent years. Tom had been working for a small nonprofit and enjoyed his work, too.”
They had the flexibility to live off of Deziel’s U.S. Bank salary, so Stukel stayed home with Scarlett and Noelle and did not return to the workforce until December 2019.
Liz Deziel’s decision to leave U.S. Bank wasn’t made hastily during the pandemic. It had been in the works for a year or so. She had started to feel like she wanted to “trade places” with her husband as the at-home parent.
“In the earlier years, he was better suited for that role,” she says. “When the kids were babies and toddlers, I felt like I had the easier job going to the office. And I liked my work. He handled the exhaustion and the social isolation. He was better at getting on the floor and playing with them, and so I didn’t necessarily wish I was in his shoes when the girls were younger.”
At the time she left U.S. Bank, Deziel had been working in the bank’s corporate social responsibility area. Previously, she had been a senior vice president in the bank’s wealth management business. A few years ago, she competed with a male colleague for a market leader position in the Twin Cities. She didn’t get the local job, but was offered market leader positions in two other metro areas in the United States. She turned down those opportunities.
“Having family here and having been to college here, I feel pretty rooted here and invested in the community,” Deziel says. “I have so much history here and I feel so connected to so many aspects of this community that it wouldn’t be worth it to me to give all of that up for a job.”
For the first eight months of the pandemic, Deziel was the primary parent at home with her daughters. Deziel did her U.S. Bank work while the girls studied. On some of those days, she says, “I felt like I was constantly pushing them off” by encouraging them to keep themselves busy while she took part in work video meetings.
Since she left her job, the decks are clear for Deziel to enjoy spending time with her daughters, and she’s started to cook and do chores around the house that her husband used to do. “I can hang out with [my daughters] on their class breaks, and we can play games while they are on a break,” she says. “I know they won’t always want to hang out with their mom as much, so I am soaking that up. And I’m also enjoying having more open space in my life.”
Deziel emphasizes that she is taking a break from the work world, not leaving it for good. As a graduate of a women’s college and longtime
supporter of women’s careers, she says she “absolutely” believes that more women should hold C-suite jobs.
However, she also urges companies to take a second look at what constitutes success in senior management roles in their workplaces.
“I think women would be more interested in those roles if they were convinced that the hours, the stress, the demands, and the culture would not suffocate their lives outside of work,” Deziel says.
Since she posted her career “pause” news on LinkedIn last year, she’s engaged in conversations with many women who are reassessing their work and personal lives, especially in light of the pandemic.
Women have the capability to perform well in any C-suite job in major companies, Deziel says, but adds that some women aren’t going to step forward to pursue jobs that currently are designed to be all-consuming and require people to be available 24/7 on a regular basis.
“I have recalibrated what my goals are, and I think I’ve realized I am far more motivated by meaning and fulfillment than I am by money and power and status,” Deziel says. She hasn’t put a specific timeline on when she’ll reenter the workforce or decided whether she’ll work in the private, public, or nonprofit sector.
But she’s clear-eyed about her values at home and at work. Deziel says, “I look forward to doing more work in the Twin Cities community for a second act after I’ve taken this break, and I am excited to pursue that work feeling recharged.”
Liz Fedor is the senior editor of Twin Cities Business, where she’s been reporting on women’s leadership issues for several years.