Book Review: The Wife Drought

Today’s review is of The Wife Drought, by Annabel Crabb, Australian political writer and commentator.

When I heard about this book, I knew I had to have it. I’ve been a fan of Annabel Crabb’s writing since she wrote sketches in the SMH about the 2007 election. And I have read enough books about the intersection of feminism, motherhood and women in the workplace that I have a dedicated shelf of them at home.

And this book didn’t disappoint. I read it in a sitting, right in the middle of a busy working week. Crabb’s writing style is very engaging, which means I tend to read it too fast to engage critically with the argument.  But fundamentally Crabb’s argument is that in the open competition in the full-time workplace, having someone at home working part-time, or not at all, to manage the house and the children gives you a huge advantage in the workplace.  So if we really want to change the world so that women and men are equally like to succeed in business, you need to change the world so that women and men are equally likely to be ‘wives’.

A ‘wife’ can be male or female. Whether they’re men or women, though, the main thing wives are is a cracking professional asset.

In the olden days, wives were usually women. Which is funny, because nowadays wives are usually women too.

It is not all that surprising, then that the people who seem to get to the top, of business, or politics, in Australia, are more often those with ‘wives’ to support them, and those people getting to the top tend (but not always) to be men, as they are more likely to be in that family situation.

The introduction starts with some statistics; I’m sure that’s what sucked me in so much. I’ve tried to find my own in the past, so it was great to see some properly sourced ABS stats on the topic.

Of Australian couple families with kids under the age of fifteen, 60 percent have a dad who works full-time, and a mum who works either part-time or not at all. How many families have a mum who works full-time and a dad who is at home or works part-time? Three per cent.

It turns out that in Australian work-places, 76 percent of full-time working dads have a ‘wife’. Three out of four. But among the mothers who work full-time, the rate of wife-having is much, much lower: only 14 per cent.

The book then goes on to review the lived experience – how did we get to this point? And what is it like to be a woman without a wife in a challenging job? And concludes that we have only half-finished the revolution. Workplaces have let women into them (albeit not without significant battles, and still ongoing discrimination); Crabb quotes many studies showing how men and women are still likely to fall back into stereotypes when evaluating people. But Crabb finds much evidence – anecdotal and statistical – that the barriers to men getting out of the workplace are still much stronger.

The fact that we don’t expect men to ask for less work is telegraphed both explicitly and implicitly at every level of public and private life.

The final chapter is the clarion call to action – in which Crabb talks about all the assumptions society makes about the natural arrangement of homes, gender and parenting. This chapter was the one which had me nodding along in recognition, with the anecdotes of calls from the school to the mother despite a note on the file, the assumption that a father couldn’t possibly be a competent parent, and sadly, the occasional group of mothers who shun the dads in the playground.

the power of Australia’s strong male-breadwinner culture is almost elemental. It’s note impossible, illegal or even particularly impractical for a woman to be the main breadwinner in a family, or for a father to stay at home with his children. It’s just that the gravitational pull of the orthodox arrangement is very, very strong.

Ultimately Crabb is calling for men to change. For society to change enough to bring new ways of measuring the structure of men’s lives. In her view we won’t change the structure of who is charge at the top of an organisation, unless we change the assumptions of what happens at home as well.

In focusing so hard on encouraging women to lean in, we’ve neglected to convince men of their entitlement to lean out once in a while.

From the liberal way in which I’ve quoted from this book, you can see I really enjoyed it. Annabel Crabb is a funny, impassioned writer, on this and many other topics, and she has backed up her fascinating anecdotes from the famous and not so famous with an impressive array of evidence and statistics.

Many books on this kind of topic are only read by the already convinced; I hope this book is also read by those who haven’t taken much interest in the thorny area of women succeeding at the highest levels of the workplace.

Disclosure (1): I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. 

Disclosure (2): By Crabb’s definition, interestingly, although I am a woman, I also have a ‘wife’ – in the Actuarial Eye family of two parents and two children, I am the only one earning an income, although my partner prefers the word ‘dilettante’.

  2 comments for “Book Review: The Wife Drought

  1. Stuart Turner
    September 30, 2014 at 3:52 pm

    I became a “wife” 6 months ago, after we spent 4 years juggling with being part-time and balancing work and family – and I find myself agreeing with every point that you’ve summarized from the book.

    Certainly one of the (many) considerations in making the choice was the concern that we might be short-changing both of our careers by trying to maintain the balance. (Or short-changing our personal lives to maintain the careers. Probably both.) I found it hard to look up the corporate ladder and see many examples of successful couples balancing it all. And the outcome is that I don’t think there are that many people at senior levels who really understand the additional challenges when both partners are working jobs (and especially when both jobs are demanding).

    So far, by every meaningful measure the move to being a house husband has been great for us. Hopefully my (actual) wife thinks so too. I’d agree that the main issues are ultimately trivial things, reflecting old pre-conceptions – the assumptions that I’m “babysitting” the kids today, and the incredulous questions about whether I cook dinner as well. Ultimately it feels me like things are changing though – I’m not the only dad regularly on pickup duty at school.

    My pet media/political bug-bear along these lines: Why is child-care always about “getting mums back to work”? Doesn’t the language need to change to “helping parents balance family and work”?

    Thanks for the review!

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