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Get Ahead – Get A Wife!

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

What really makes it all work for professional women and their careers… it’s not mentors, sponsors, or networks.

It’s not stretch assignments, supportive cultures, or part time work options that get respect.

It’s not even rights to flexible work arrangements.

Don’t get me wrong, all those things are important.  But I reckon the key to a sustainable career for a woman is something quite different.

It’s a wife.

Two Stories

A mid-career manager and mother of two who I’ve known for many years had her career in a holding pattern, as she worked three and then four days a week. What reignited her career was acquiring a full-time wife. Her wife – you guessed it – stands six foot two and wakes up with chin stubble. After his many years of fulfilling but round-the-clock hours, he had opted to resign and base himself at home.  She went back to fulltime work and soon landed a large, demanding role with a new organisation. I doubt she would have considered this position, let alone been considered for it, if she’d tried to explore it as a part timer.

Here’s another one.

Heading to the client’s canteen recently, my conversation with the Marketing Manager, a woman, went like this:

“How’s your daughter settling into kindergarten?” I asked.

“She loves it.  But the whole second week she was home sick.”

“That’s tough to manage with work. It gets better by primary school, their immune systems develop.”

“No, my partner’s one of those full-time house-husbands so her being sick hasn’t been such a hassle. Well, not for me!”

There you have it. Her focus on work, and by extension her career, can continue because she has the equivalent of a wife at home.

Stories like these got me thinking about what it takes to sustain a professional woman’s career.

Working Mothers

I’m talking about sustaining the careers of professional working mothers of course. Before children, most women are seen, and judged, to be fully committed at work, and their seniority and earnings tend to track upwards. They may carry a disproportionate burden of housework back at home (over 2 hours a day in New Zealand for women on food prep and cleaning versus 45 minutes for men) but they still deliver the full quota of hours at work and are prepared to “do what it takes”, anything from plane trips at short notice to all night work sessions.

Childless Careers

Women who choose not to have children, or can’t, often continue their upward career trajectory. It can’t be a coincidence that a disproportionate number of senior women don’t have children.  I could name many local examples, but a striking one is Theresa Gattung. In her autobiography she is frank about her realisation that she couldn’t get to the top and also manage a family.  In her words,

As a woman I believe you can have it all – just not necessarily all at the same time.

I don’t know of any NZ statistics on how many senior women managers and professionals are childless, but a 2002 HBR article by Sylvia Ann Hewlett  found that in the USA half (49%) of business women earning over $US100k had no children, compared to a fifth (19%) of men at that earning level. I bet the men had more children on average too.

Put bluntly, children enhance a man’s career and undermine a woman’s. It seems family responsibilities are deemed to make him even more committed to his job – putting bread on the table as the key provider – whereas those same responsibilities are assumed to make her less committed – the child will come first because she will be the lead carer. That’s why he’s a great dad if he takes a long lunch break to watch his child’s school swim meet, but she’s got divided loyalties if she does the same.

So the career sustainability issue for professional women really only bites when the stork drops in: you don’t need a wife till you have children.

Do the Maths

In the BC years (Before Children) it’s fairly simple for professional couples. You share the chores and, if you can afford to, often outsource the lawns and the house cleaning.

Once kids arrive, however, the maths changes. You may like your house but you love your kids. You can skip mowing the lawns, but you can’t skip watching the baby vigilantly once she can move (we rang the Poisons Hotline three times, I confess), and you can’t leave her home alone when she’s asleep either.

It doesn’t get much freer when she starts school, though as first time parents we naively thought this would make everything easier. Later, I calculated how many hours of childcare parents like us needed once children started school. Allowing three hours daily for after school care, plus holidays, it took 27 working weeks – 23 if you net off your 4 weeks’ paid holiday. That’s still almost half a year!

The numbers are clear – from birth up to at least 14 years, your children will need between 1000 and 2000 hours’ care a year, or a half to one full time role. And if you’ve been there, you know that it can be easier to manage the 2000 hours of full time care than the 1000 hours slotted round both school holidays and school days that finish well ahead of workdays. It’s a huge demand. Who ya gonna call?!

Wife Equivalent Units

Wives don’t have to be bearded baritones, of course – and usually aren’t!  A full time Wife Equivalent Unit (that’s 1 FTWEU) can be built other ways for those families where the woman is seeking to continue building her career.

Most working families nowadays use some sort of outsourcing to achieve their FTWEU. Childcare centres, grannies and aunties (if relatives live close enough), child minders etc.  The hitch is that these usually need stitching together into a workable solution. That not only takes a good deal of planning, it’s also at risk of unravelling when the childminder gets a flat tyre in the same week that Auntie, the usual back-up, is out of town.  If a professional woman’s FTWEU includes herself as the lead planner and problem solver – and my observation is that many do – she’s struggling against distractions.

That’s why I believe it’s such a relief for a professional woman to have a wife equivalent unit who is one trusted and reliable person, rather than a patchwork of people and facilities. It’s so hard to concentrate and perform well when part of your mind is fretting over arrangements to keep your child safe and happy. When you know someone else is competently picking up the pieces you can focus on the job at hand. To me, that’s the essential benefit a wife brings to sustaining a career.

The Dollars

Ah, but this kind of reliable, loving, flexible full time person doesn’t come cheap.  I’m a bit of out of touch but my quick estimate of the (minimum) cost of a full time nanny came out at a ghastly $65000 from pre tax income ($40k from post tax). So if that’s the minimum you need to be earning to cover your wife-like childcare, and if you then add on some extra income to actually finish up ahead, you’re looking at the very top percentiles of our local household income distribution.

There are cheaper alternatives that suit some families (shared in-home childcare for example, and potentially a nana in support) but it’s also easy to see why one parent, he or she, opts to forego their not-so-stratospheric salary and stay home.

Yet childcare is the price of continuing a career because you cannot be the parent of a child under 14 and earn an economic income, i.e. dollars paid in the marketplace, without it.  At this point I could head into a long grumble about the iniquity of tax treatment in this area, but I’ll save that for another day…

The Future

Ideally the working world would allow both parents to have the fulfilment of children but also to further their careers and grow their businesses.  But right now most working households with children seem to have room for only one “full bore” career or lead income earner, and one supporting career and income. I can’t see that changing significantly until at least two things happen:

  • Wifelike childcare (loving, reliable and simple to run across all child stages) becomes more affordable relative to prevailing professional incomes
  • Organisations work out how to structure important roles on something other than 5 office days and 60 hours a week

Last point. Successful dual “full bore” career households with young children do exist but for sure they plough a significant portion of their high combined income into a full time lead carer and robust back up.

How you design your FTWEU and how you afford it is up to you – but if as a professional woman you want a sustainable career once you have children, I believe the essential ingredient is someone reliable and loving to keep the home fires burning happily. In short, you need a wife.

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