Do you have a dog? You probably should, especially if you're a female executive or company founder. At least, that's the advice of some very powerful women who say having a dog has made a huge difference to their lives and careers. They're absolutely serious about this, and they have science to back them up.
When Quartz reporter Leah Fessler interviewed 50 powerful women for the series How We'll Win: The Visionaries, she asked each of them the same set of questions, including this one, fill-in-the-blank question: "Everyone should own______." She got a wide and fascinating variety of fascinating answers, ranging from "a soul" to "an Italian espresso maker, the ones with the top that screws on." Sheryl Sandberg recommended a pen and notebook because, "If you want to get stuff done, there's no substitute for just writing it down."
These women came from very different disciplines. There was Marie Kondo, known for her Netflix series on the joy of tidying up, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, and Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement. There were scientists and TV producers and medal-winning Olympic athletes. So you might not expect a lot of overlap in their answers to this question of what everybody should own, and there wasn't. No two women had the same answer to that question--except when it came to dogs. Five of these female leaders said that everyone should own a dog. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) skipped right over the question of dog ownership--which was presumed--and said everyone should own a dog-paw washer. Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck said that everyone should own a pet and while she understands that many prefer dogs, she herself is partial to cats. And Harvard economist Claudia Goldin made the inevitable point that while everyone should have a dog around, it's really they who own us.
Dog ownership = greater longevity.
What's the big deal about dogs? If you have one or more dogs in your life, then you likely already know. The scientific benefits of owning a dog are well-documented, most notably in a Swedish study of 3.4 million dog owners. Dog registration is mandatory in Sweden and there are national records of all hospital visits, so researchers were able to track the health effects of dog ownership over 12 years. They found that people who had a dog were less likely to die of cardiovascular disease and other causes, even after accounting for other known risk factors such as weight, smoking, and poverty. The difference was especially striking for people who lived alone--they had a 33 percent lower chance of dying over that 12-year period than those who lived alone without a dog.
That last statistic makes it clear that the health benefits go beyond the increased activity that usually comes with dog ownership. It's all about companionship and unconditional love. As Oprah Winfrey puts it, "They're happy to see you no matter what and there's never any judgment." Not only that, as another study shows, dogs run to their owners if they see them crying or in distress. Dogs don't just offer unconditional love, they also provide an endless supply of comfort and confidence-boosting as well.
Which is something women in leadership roles sorely need. Despite a lot of talk about gender equality over the past couple of years, women still only occupy 18 percent of leadership roles in the business world, a recent study showed. While it would be great to think of this as a relic of less enlightened times that will disappear over the next couple of decades, the evidence suggests that that this double standard is firmly entrenched and will remain in place for the foreseeable future because it's taught even to college students. One recent and very depressing study at Stanford demonstrated how recruiters from most established tech companies and startups make it clear to graduating women that they shouldn't expect to ever take a leadership role.
So what happens to the women who buck the trend and do take on leadership or high-powered roles? They often face a no-win situation. If they act nice, they're considered too soft and feminine to be effective leaders. If they assert their authority in ways that are commonly accepted and even rewarded from men, they're considered aggressive and unfeminine and are disliked by their colleagues, bosses, and direct reports. They often feel isolated as the only female leader in the room, or one of a very few. In male-dominated industries, they might be the only female, period.
The ideal antidote to working in a hostile environment.
Subtly or overtly, going to work under these conditions can feel like spending all day every day in a hostile environment. It's hard to imagine a better antidote than boundless amounts of unconditional love and concerned comfort. I'll leave the last word to Winfrey, who certainly has faced and overcome hostility as a woman leader. She rose from a childhood of poverty and sexual abuse to become the first black female news anchor at a Nashville TV station, took over a failing talk show and made it number one in its market in matter of months, founded her own production company, and is America's first African-American multi-billionaire.
In a short video, Winfrey described her relationship with her dog Sophie, who she said was he greatest teacher. Sophie accompanied Winfrey whenever she shot her talk show, as well as to the Oscar and Emmy awards, until the dog's death at 13. Winfrey said she realized that no one would ever love her as Sophie had. She still has multiple dogs--as many as 11 at one time--and says nothing makes her happier than taking them for a walk or rolling with them on the lawn. "Over the years I have felt the truest, purest love, she said. "I imagine that's what God's love feels like is the love that comes from your dog." All of us, executive women and everyone else, could use a little more of that.