CEO of Top Fashion Company Steps Down to Support His Wife’s Career
“My wife and I have agreed that for the coming years, her professional ambitions should take priority,” Rubin Ritter recently said in a statement.
This seemingly routine business announcement is actually rather remarkable. It has personal relevance to the journey my family has been on. It also contains a complicated lesson we should all spend more time wrestling with.
The backdrop of this departure
Zalando was founded 12 years ago by three partners in Berlin. Today, with 14,000 employees, they are the number one fashion retailer in Europe. They generated £1.6 billion in revenue last quarter alone. Ritter’s departure certainly isn’t tied to underperformance by him or the company.
Ritter’s exit comes three years and many millions of dollars before the expiration of his contract. He was silent on the details of his departure and those of his wife. It is known that they are expecting a second child. But his story has further significance.
It is a contrast from a year of bad headlines for women
2020 has been particularly damaging to women’s careers, with them being disproportionally impacted by layoffs, resigning from their jobs more often, experiencing greater pay differentials.
So much is written about the sacrifices women make for their families. It seemed a subject worthy of more male perspectives. Particularly because, as men, we are remarkably silent on the subject. If anything, we are defensive. A poll by Time magazine revealed that 50% of men think the pay gap is fake.
What is striking about Ritter’s departure isn’t just that it’s a CEO quitting at the top of his game. It’s that he specifically cited his reason for leaving as a show of support for his spouse, with no other variables listed. How often do you see young, powerful men making this sacrifice?
Reading between his lines and our own
Ritter's statement is interesting because of what is unsaid. Something clearly wasn’t going well. After all, major life changes aren’t typically rooted in a place of contentment.
No, we shouldn’t clap when people do the things they are supposed to do. Yet Ritter does deserve acknowledgment. Too often, people become expendable to CEOs, no more than pawns on a chessboard, disregarded in lieu of something fresh, better, or more convenient, even if it means a new family.
Ritter isn’t alone. Reddit founder, Alexis Ohanian, left his position with Reddit this summer, citing his desire to focus on his family.
“Reddit was my first child. I started it right out of college,” Ohanian told CBS, “But looking inward, it was a hard decision until it was a really easy one, when I remembered that my greatest creation is not and never will be Reddit. It’s my daughter, and I want her to be proud of her father.”
Ohanian’s wife, Serena Williams, has no small career herself.
Making sense of it all
It’s one thing for top-tier CEOs to walk away from their jobs for their wife. They’ve planted their flag in the ground. They have significance and financial security. It’s another for us regular folk, who chum a sea of greater uncertainty, to up and call it quits.
In a perfect world, a powerful man leaving his job to support his wife wouldn’t be a trending news story. Yet, perhaps the mere fact that it is, is a sign of progress.
This ‘who quits for who’ problem is more complicated than it is at face value. Men struggle with the concept of stepping behind the curtain for their families. It runs in contrast to a dogged, still-flawed model of masculinity. More than once, I’ve been around guys and heard them devalue men scoffing, “Eh. He’s just a stay-at-home dad,” as if he’d somehow failed his gender.
Society still puts immense pressure on men to perform and be providers. Though this societal paternal nudge isn’t without merits, promoting accountability and work ethic, it continues to tug at the best interests of our relationships.
For example, your odds of divorce go up by 33% when your wife makes more money than you. The whys and hows of that statistic are for another article. Yet, it's worth mentioning that I’m a man who was married to a woman who made twice what I’ve ever made. I also went through a divorce with said woman. I can attest that income differentials cause problems that extend far beyond ‘male insecurity’.
The takeaway to consider
Ultimately, my hope is that we get to a place where we don’t compete with our partners, or feel the need to fill old, dated gender roles because, really, that’s what all this noise is about.
It seems an obvious truth that family should come first. But ego and gender norms are enduring pillars of life. We should recognize and continually affirm the sacrifices our loved ones make for us. Everyone desires significance in their life. Raising a family in relative anonymity can feel like a thankless job.
My mother surrendered a career with NASA to support my dad’s military career and raise my sister and me. The decision did not come without great difficulty.
After dad’s retirement (30+ years later), he threw all his support into the vineyard she started. He’s given immense amounts of time, money, and effort, to help them build a great operation. Today, Bleufrog Vineyards is bustling with customers and thriving.
We live long lives. The tables of good and bad fortune can turn in an instant and offer new opportunities to provide for our families. There is a true and deeply underappreciated strength in foregoing our own glory out of love for another. And as people, it's time we started recognizing it.