Lego woman does housework

“The Wife Drought” by Annabel Crabb

The Wife Drought is Annabel Crabb’s chatty, informative, somewhat alarming and marginally disingenuous examination of the fact that most men have wives, and most women don’t, and what that means for how much men and women, respectively, can get done in their public lives.

Crabb is herself one of those very few women in the world who are both so privileged and so challenged by having high-profile, presumably well paid and certainly very demanding job while raising a family. All without a wife to do all the work that is involved in keeping both a family, and pursuit of a (high profile, very demanding and probably well paid) career going.

Crabb’s focus, to give her her due, is with public life.  We are talking here about women who might hold public office, or work as lawyers, journalists, politicians, doctors, CEO’s, senior managers, or pursue some other middle-class career. The points she makes apply more broadly – I’m none of those things, and could still use a wife! I’d get so much more (other than house) work done if I had one.  And even a woman who is a factory worker might find the distribution of domestic labour still unfairly landing on her. But this book is as much about Annabel Crabb and her frustration with the distribution of unpaid work in her own life, and in the life of women like her, as it is about anything else.

While much has changed for women, not much has changed for men

Lego Man does houseworkCrabb’s main point is that while so much has changed for women in the world of paid work in the last 30 years, so little has changed for men.  There are many reasons for this but Crabb argues that one of the most powerful influences are some “pretty rigorous” expectations about who is likely to, and who should, do which jobs. “Men continue to be over-represented at work, and under-respresented at home.  Viewed one way, this is an unforgivable and continuing annexation of money, power and influence.  Viewed the other way up, it’s a continuing tragedy for children and for men, bound tight into a web of expectations no one even asked them if they wanted.”[i]

Wife Work: the “Invisible Power-Pellet”

And the result? Women do the wife work: “Utterly invisible to the national economy, but significant to the well-being of a family” It’s a job description which is one for which “blokes don’t regularly apply”.  You don’t get paid, it’s 24/7, it’s unpredictable, achievements are fleeting and quick forgotten, and key performance indicators are “so random as to be ridiculous”.[ii]. And faced with the lack of takers for the job, women give up expecting to find anyone else to fill it (as evidenced by women’s retention of the bulk of housework even when they work outside the home).  And this “invisible power-pellet that is a wife”[iii] gives men a massive advantage in the world of work.

This the wife drought, which “both underpins and perpetuates all the other elements that influence women’s experience in the workplace.”[iv] Much analysis of causes of women’s overall participation in workforce focus on the significant structural barriers to women’s participation such as the gender pay gap, prejudice and unconscious bias amongst decision makers, and women’s low expectations of themselves[v]. But Crabb asks “what if the structural problem here is not just how to get women into the workplace, but how to get men out of it?”[vi], and she concludes that “the tale of what happens to women at work cannot possibly be told, much less understood, until we …understand what is going on with women outside the four walls of the workplace”.

The Wife Drought

And what is that tale?  75% of senior executive men tend to have wives who did not work.  On the other hand 75% of senior executive women have husbands who worked full time. 67% of female executives answer that they “take more responsibility for making childcare arrangements”., while 1% of male executives give that answer.  In lower income brackets, 76% of men have wives that work part time or not at all, while only 3% of full time working women have a “house husband” at home.  While women and men seem to launch themselves into the workforce when they first start work on a more or less even footing, by the time they are having children, women take part time work – offering more flexibility – and so becoming less competitive in the workplace.[vii]

In fact, it’s hard for men get out of the workplace – on arrival of a child, our systems encourage men to keep on working as though nothing has happened. On average, fathers slightly increase their working hours once a child has arrived. Few men access entitlements to take time off work or work more flexibly. It takes redundancy or accident for men to have the opportunity to experience the joys of paying more attention to family than work.  And when this happens, they don’t seem to be all that proud about it, while 90% of stay at home mums will say that they are not working because they are at home to look after the kids, only 20% of men will offer this explanation. As for paid parental leave: “in 2013, paid parental leave was taken by 10,000 women a month, and just a shade under twenty men,”[viii].

Why don’t men ask for more leave? People find it easier to ask for things that they are expected to ask for, and we don’t expect men to ask. This is despite evidence that more flexible work practices result in more work getting done, not less – and so would be in the interests of employers to encourage this. Following the stories of several men who were successful in their requests for greater flexibility at work in order to meet parental responsibilities, Crabb finds, in general, men need to persist in their request, and be prepared to endure a general resistance and low level hassling from colleagues.[ix]

The advantages of marriage…or not

In chapter 3, she traces historical forces which institutionalised these trends. And when I read this section out loud to my 15 year old daughter, she couldn’t believe her ears. The “marriage bar” forced women to retire from the public service upon marriage (with the exception of typists and teachers), and remained in place until 1966. Even now, while women’s prospects diminish after marriage, men’s prospects improve, with married men earning 15% more than unmarried ones. And in job selection, family men are regarded more highly than single men, but women who are parents are considered less suitable for hiring.  So develops a specialisation – where men do more of the paid work, and women the unpaid.[x]

Meanwhile, on the home front…

A man shows his housework muscles with a new vacuum cleanerSo what is actually happening on the home front? It turns out that Australian women and men do more work on the home front than some other countries – partly because we do not have a culture of low paid domestic service. But in general, everywhere, women do about twice as much housework as men do. And as women moved into the workforce over the last 30 years, it was not counterbalanced by men picking up the slack on the home front: in fact, over that period women increased their time on home duties by nearly 20%. Women respond flexibly as paid work is added – tending to shrink their housework hours (up to a point) when they work full-time and increase them when they have children, but “men seem to be bound by some kind of unwritten national housework award which keeps them at about 20 hours a week, no matter what else is going on.”[xi]. There are only a handful of life events that change the amount of housework that men do – moving out of home, divorce, but not, interestingly, the arrival of children. “The birth of a first child jacked up a woman’s housework considerably…[but this event] generates negligible extra housework for men.” And the arrival of a second child reduces the time he spends on housework.[xii]

And in Australia, it gets even more interesting: Women do less housework as their contribution to the household budget increases – until she reaches 66.6% of total household income. Then she starts doing MORE housework.  This does not happen in American couples.[xiii]. Crabb concludes “In an average Australian family, a woman will commonly behave like a housewife even if she isn’t one.  And a man will behave as though he’s married to a housewife, even when he isn’t.”[xiv].

Dad Moments vs Mum Moments

In Chapter 5, Crabb explores the way men’s and women’s housework is viewed in popular culture and advertising, where fondly observed “dad moments” legitimise housework as the domain of women: “for men, there is a definite exception for incompetence in the kitchen” [xv], but for women, the same does not apply. “Humour really is an incredibly useful diagnostic social tool. It’s okay to laugh at a man being bad at bringing up kids or cooking, because it’s not really an insult; we don’t expect him to be good at either of those things.”[xvi]  Women collude in this – with “hopeless husband” memes. Crabb ventures the opinion that ” women who earn more than their husbands may exaggerate their husband’s incompetence in the home in order to retain a strong feminine identity despite their “unorthodox” domestic arrangements.”[xvii]

woman multitasking juggles phone and alarm and baby and at and ironing and dog...And are there corresponding “mum moments”?  Yes, but they are “supercharged and twanging [with] over-competence”.[xviii]This is where Crabb’s own story is pushing to be told – and we are treated to a five page description of some of her, and her colleagues’, “mum moments”.  She argues that these “mum moments”, which serve to keep women on the hook, are the twisted mirror of the “dad moments”, which let men off the hook. But she can’t quite unhook herself from her own sense of self-congratulation at the way she, the super professional mum, manages it all. So she describes it all at some length, even going so far as to report one of her performances which was itself observed by an outsider as self-indulgent and boastful. But she shares it anyway. And here she lost me – wealthy, privileged, influential, powerful women getting together in a kind of “professional mum’s club” to bemoan how hard it all is, while at the same time acknowledging that of course, they haven’t got it half as hard as some.

Continuing the theme of social pressure and expectations, in Chapter 8, Role Reversal, Crabb documents how women and men meet a barrage of implicit and explicit criticism if they manage their affairs such that women remain at work while their husbands carry the load at home. The women are assumed not to be “real women”.  And men are not considered toi be adequate men, and are never really accepted into parenting culture, which remains the province of women. And even when roles are reversed, we’ve already seen that Australian women don’t actually give up the housework anyway.

What’s Wife Work Worth?

And while wife-work is in fact, a “power pellet”, it’s fraught to actually measure its value, which makes the discussion of how it should be done, and by whom, even harder. How do we determine the quality of this work, how to we measure the time it should take, or the standards to be achieved? In Chapter 6, Crabb documents various, inconclusive and problematic methods which might be employed to determine the value of the housework and childcare that women do.[xix]

Leaning Out

In the face of all this, Crabb concludes “perhaps it’s men’s turn now to change. For years we have argued about quotas and affirmative action and all the ancillary techniques to move women up through leadership ranks, but we have taken our eyes off the other half of the equation.  In focussing so hard on encouraging women to lean in, we’ve neglected to convince men of their entitlement to lean out once in a while.”[xx]

I agree, and appreciate the picture Crabb has painted of the history, financial pressures and incentives, and internalised social expectation which makes it so hard.  I just wish that, somehow, it was less of a story about a very ambitious woman able to “pursue it all”. Because, in fact, she is very, very privileged. And most of us are not.


[i] Crabb, A. (2014). The Wife Drought. North Sydney, NSW: Edbury Press. P84
[ii] Ibid, p 14-15
[iii] Ibid, p 48
[iv] Ibid, p 52
[v] Ibid, p 30-40
[vi] Ibid, p 54
[vii] Ibid, p 46-48
[viii] Ibid, p 78
[ix] Ibid, p 70
[x] Ibid, p 85-107
[xi] Ibid, p 117
[xii] Ibid p 112-116
[xiii] Ibid p 120
[xiv] Ibid, p 131
[xv] Ibid, p 134
[xvi] Ibid, p139
[xvii] Ibid, p140
[xviii] Ibid, p 144
[xix] Ibid, p158-186
[xx] Ibid, p 255

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© 2020 by Madeleine Winter.