The Wife DroughtWe’ve all seen the alarming stats about women in the workplace.  The higher the workplace position, the fewer women.  But why?  And what to do about it?  Annabel Crabb thinks she has the answer.  And I think she’s right.

I’ve read lots of feminist critiques of the workplace, and I’ve enjoyed most of them.  I’ve read lots of interviews with women in positions of influence and power.  I’ve often enjoyed those too.

But there comes a time when it all begins to get repetitive.

Women do most of the housework.  Women are under-represented in positions of seniority.  Women routinely earn less than men.  Male job applicants are demonstrably preferred over female candidates.

Most of the feminist critiques are adept at pointing out the problem, and for that I’m grateful.  But Crabb’s The Wife Drought is the first I’ve read in a long time that also points to a solution: working women need a ‘wife’.  If women in senior positions were blessed with wives in the same way that men in senior positions frequently are, we might see a participatory uptick, because women wouldn’t have to choose between having a career and having a family.

The term ‘wife’ is used loosely to describe a partner at home raising the kids, making the meals, remembering when the school concert is on and generally keeping the home fires burning.  With someone like that, women could focus entirely on their career – you know, like men can now.

…in Australian workplaces, 76 per cent of full-time working dads have a ‘wife’.  Three out of four.  But among mothers who work full-time, the rate of wife-having is much lower: only 15 per cent.  Working fathers, in other words, are five times as likely to have a ‘wife’ as working mothers.

Crabb then goes on to explore the implications of these figures, providing endlessly fascinating examples of the socially mandated burdens that women must manage in tandem with their careers.

…on average, women do seventeen minutes less housework a week for every 1 per cent extra they contribute to the household budget.  So if a husband earns $99,000 and his wife goes out and gets a casual job that pays $1000, she will lop seventeen minutes off her weekly housework.  Another 1 per cent of contribution ensues a further seventeen fewer minutes of work around the house, and so on….But this pattern only holds until the woman’s contribution reaches 66.6 per cent of total household income.  Once she starts earning more than that, she actually starts increasing her amount of unpaid work again.

Janeen Baxter, the researcher who discovered this phenomenon attempts to explain why.  ‘One explanation is that we have such a strong male breadwinner culture in Australia that in those households women are, if you like, re-asserting their gender identity by picking up some of the housework that’s left over.’

Another researcher, Terrance Fitzsimmons, interviewed 61 Australian CEOs.

…the baldest difference between Fitzsimmons’ CEOs was they way they organised their domestic lives.  Of the thirty men he interviewed, twenty-eight had children.  And all twenty-eight of these had a stay-at-home wife.  Of the thirty-one women he interviewed, only two had stay-at-home husbands, and in both those cases the men were self-employed.  The men had wives, and the women didn’t – simple as that.  Of the female CEOs who had children (about two-thirds of them…) every single one of them identified herself as the primary care giver.

And therein lies the answer to women’s lack of progress up the workplace tree.

As Crabb notes, of course a person with a spouse to take care of stuff at home will be more free to prosper in the workplace.  Those female CEOs who have managed to get so far are the exceptional people prepared and able to manage two highly responsible jobs at the same time.  Most of us mortals can not.  No wonder we opt out of promotions, of long hours, of the partner track.

…by 2006, more than half of Australia’s women – 55 per cent – were in the workforce.  This movement of women into the workplace was considerable, but it was not counterbalanced by men moving in the opposite direction.  And women did not decrease their overall contribution to housework to reflect the other jobs they’d taken on since 1992.  In fact, between 1992 and 2006, women actually increased the time they spent on child care by nearly 20 per cent.

Over the same period, though, men’s contribution to the housework has changed not at all.  Even the birth of a first child generates negligible extra housework for men.  Crabb muses that ‘men seem bound by some kind of unwritten national housework award which keeps them at about twenty hours a week, no matter what else is going on.’   She examines carefully and thoughtfully the stereotype of the bumbling dad.

Our system doesn’t just allow fathers to be hopeless.  It expects them to be.  It encourages them to be.  And it is perpetually surprised when they aren’t.

But she doesn’t leave it there.  Crabb goes on to explore the ways social conditioning also serves to disadvantage men.

…what about the barriers that make it hard for men to get out of the workplace? … Why should we so readily agree for men to be painted out of the [child-rearing] picture?  Having a child is a life-changing experience, or so a convincing majority of parenting blogs consistently maintain.  So why does our system pretend that parenthood only changes women’s lives?

Crabb provides some eye-opening examples of men being denied flexible workplace arrangements, as well as the social pressure faced by men who opt to spend more time looking after their children.  The most interesting chapter looks at the effects of more balanced arrangements as they affect men.  What would happen if men worked less and looked after their families more?

…the lead indicator for trouble at work is less to do with whether you are a man or a woman, and more to do with whether you behave the way people expect you to behave.  If workplaces were equally accepting of men who take time out for family, there would be no reason for men to feel awkward about asking.  And if men were as common as women on the playgroup circuit, then the assumption that raising children is women’s work would be less dominant.  We are shaped by assumptions, after all.  But they needn’t be set in stone.

Crabb wonders if men are where women were thirty years ago.

Men are at the point where they’re beginning to discover that there are things beyond the old notion of masculinity that are rewarding…They’re getting these [mixed] messages that somehow they have to live up to a norm of masculinity that includes all the old protective, provider roles, but also new ones.  Being yanked one way and the other by conflicting expectations is not a comfortable place to be.  And the emerging stress and strain on fathers – expected at once to be more present for their children, and yet still omnipresent at work – is the belated male version of the ‘having it all’ question.  Perhaps it’s men’s turn now to change.

That this discussion is delivered in Crabb’s trademark witty and erudite style is an absolute bonus, ensuring The Wife Drought is a cracking good read.  Don’t miss, for example, the laugh-out-loud anecdotes about the cannibal guinea pig, or the jellied breast milk.  And don’t miss the point: women with partners who actually pull their weight at home shouldn’t need to feel ‘lucky’.


This review in the Sydney Morning Herald compares The Wife Drought and Geraldine Doogue’s The Climb.  Having read both recently, I think the reviewer is spot on.

Fantastic (and funny) interview between Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb in The Saturday Paper.