Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Review: The Wife Drought, by Annabel Crabb

As a young woman with high career aspirations, I've often wondered why there are still so few females in senior leadership positions in Australia. This is particularly perplexing for me given that there's been more than forty years of increased workforce opportunities for women. Subsequently I've wondered why men still dominate most senior leadership positions. I've also questioned what it means to be a wife in 21st century Australia and whether it's even a necessary role in current times when women are supposedly experiencing more rights and opportunities than ever before. Annabel Crabb's playfully titled book, The Wife Drought: Why women need wives and men need lives, is a terrific exploration of these very issues and how they relate to each other.

I'll begin by sharing some provocative facts from The Wife Drought with you:

1. Australia ranks 28th in the world for pay equality. Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland currently lead these rankings. In Australia, the higher women progress in professions such as law and corporate business, the more likely they are to be paid less than men on no other grounds than because they are women.

2. While workplace opportunities have expanded for women in recent decades, so too have their domestic expectations. Yes more women are working full time, but they're still likely to do more than twice as much housework as their full-time working husbands. In fact, the birth of a first child increases a woman's household chores by half. It increases again with the birth of a second child. Strangely women will continue to take on more domestic duties compared to their spouses the higher up the career ladder they climb. Conversely the birth of first child has negligible effects on males. Another child decreases this again.

3. If women's participation in the workforce became more like men's, it would add 11 per cent to Australia's gross domestic produce.

What Crabb also discovers is that as much as Australians might like to think of themselves as living in a modern, progressive country, the 1950s nuclear family unit is still the most dominant domestic structure for families. 60% of families have a female 'wife'* compared with only 6% of families having a male 'wife'. Men still do more of the paid work and women more of the unpaid.

This archaic structure isn't surprising once you start delving deeper into why it has persisted despite decades of workplace reforms encouraging women to participate in the workforce. This is where the strength of Crabb's thesis lies for me, because she cleverly explores this dilemma from a refreshingly original perspective: that of questioning what's changed on the home-front for women and men in all this time.

According to Crabb, this is where the biggest issues lie. For, while more doors have opened for women in the workplace, none have been closed off for them domestically. Consequently many women who have children end up doing most of the domestic work while men are able to focus on their careers. Thus, Crabb comes to the conclusion that women are in need of their own wives to look after all of the traditionally 'wifey' responsibilities so that the women who want to can get back into the workforce easier and progress with their careers with the support that will help them to do so.

I'll take a step back for a moment though. When men and women start out in the workforce, they are on a reasonably even playing-field. They tend to earn similar salaries, are generally given the same opportunities for promotion and share household duties equally. It's when women start having babies that things change.

When women have babies, they take leave from work. Subsequently, because Australia does not have an equitable paid parental leave scheme, women have a lesser income while they stay home to look after their child. When and if women decide to return to work, it's usually on a part-time basis. Therefore they are less likely to be considered for promotions because they simply do not spend enough time in the office to prove themselves to their employers. This is in contrast to men who, aided by the help of their wives who take care of the domestic duties, are able to steam-roll ahead with their careers.

That's if women decide to go back to work in the first place of course. Many decide not to, on the grounds that paying for childcare barely covers the wages that they will be earning.

This in itself is a flawed argument for a number of reasons disputed by Crabb. Firstly, why is only the woman's wage considered when making these calculations? Shouldn't some of the man's wage be also considered when weighing up how costly child care will be? Secondly, while in the short term the additional wages may only just be covering the cost of childcare, the long term benefits should surely outweigh them. After all, the woman will get the chance to re-establish herself as a valued member of her workplace so that she can be considered for future promotions and subsequently earn greater wages. So really, the sooner the wife can get back to work, the better. Unfortunately these considerations are not always made when weighing up whether or not a woman with children should return to work.

At any rate I digress and will return to the main discussion. What can we do to better support women returning to the workforce? This is where Crabb's discussion gets particularly interesting. While she returns to rethinking the domestic expectations placed on women and men, she interestingly extends her argument by focusing on how men can be better supported to contribute more on the home-front and level the playing-field for women.

Since the most drastic changes within a man and woman's relationship result from a first child being born, new interventions need to be introduced at this critical time. While women obviously need time off work to have the child and bond with their baby, men need more encouragement to take paternity leave so that they can be just as involved in the child's formative months and consequently get as much practice at being a parent as possible, which women already currently get. After all, women are not born with an innate gift to look after their children and households - they simply get more practice at it. So men need the same opportunities to practice their parental and domestic skills.

How can this happen? A number of years ago countries such as Norway introduced policies where a portion of paid parental leave would only be paid if fathers took time off work. This has proved to be extremely effective because statistically Norwegian men now spend more time helping with domestic work than what they were forty-odd years ago when the forced paternity leave policies were first introduced.

So, we need better systems in place to get men out of the workplace and back into homes. After all, a study published in 2012 showed that 79% of young fathers would prefer a compressed work week. This means that workplaces need to become just as flexible and supportive of men's parenthood as it is for women, which is unfortunately not the case currently. Therefore we need to get better at asking for what we want, especially when this contradicts social expectations. Crabb acknowledges that this won't be easy, particularly when research shows that people tend to be treated worse at work if they do not conform to traditional expectations of them. But this shouldn't stop us from demanding fairer rights so that we can be better spouses and family members. We need to do this so that men can be more involved with their family life and women more involved in the workforce without being judged negatively.

I've only scratched the surface of what Crabb discusses in her book, which is far more comprehensively explored and articulated than what's been discussed in this post. Overall The Wife Drought is a witty, well-researched, historical and contemporary account of Australian women's involvement in the workforce. Crabb recognises that changing the current structures and expectations of men and women domestically and in the workforce won't be easy, particularly with the existing policies and services (such as childcare) in place. Nevertheless Crabb offers refreshing and innovative perspectives of how women can be better supported to return to work so that they can achieve their full career potential, while also encouraging men to be more involved in the domestic sphere so that they too can lead better balanced lives.

Watch Annabel Crabb discuss The Wife Drought with George Megalogenis below:

*What Crabb means by the term 'wife' isn't the traditional 'woman married to a man' definition. Rather Crabb is referring to any woman, whether married or not, who finds herself in a partnership doing many of the jobs traditionally expected of a wife - such as looking after the house and children while her partner works. Crabb is aware that this might limit her discussion to heterosexual couples which is somewhat problematic, but argues that many couples in homosexual relationships have better balanced relationships compared with heterosexual couples as they tend to reject the traditional roles that individuals in heterosexual couples usually succumb to.

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