Mr & Mrs Wife
The men behind our corporate superwomen
SOME call it “the dirty little secret” of successful women, but it’s no secret when Australia’s most powerful women get together to talk about work, life, politics and, inevitably, children.
“I meet regularly with a wide group of CEO women friends and in almost every case the woman is the primary breadwinner and the husband either stays at home or does part-time work,” says TFE Hotels chief executive Rachel Argaman.
“I see a great deal of diversity in the arrangements that other successful women make at home – some have partners who work, some have husbands running own businesses and, yes, quite a few have partners who stay at home with the family,” says Pip Marlow, managing director of Microsoft Australia.
“If I think of my friends in senior executive positions, most have husbands who’ve stepped back from work. In fact, it’s hard to think of those whose husbands have high-powered positions,” says director and former Best & Less boss, Holly Kramer.
The person who called it a dirty little secret is Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Princeton University professor who left a highpowered job in Washington and then explained why in a 2012
Atlantic essay, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. A few months ago, in a follow-up book, called Unfinished
Business, she wrote that “the dirty little secret that women leaders who come together in places like Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit don’t talk about [is] the necessity of a primary caregiver spouse”.
Successful women have always had to answer the question – how do you do it? More are now prepared to admit that they’re not superwomen, they’re not prepared to do it all themselves. They have help, a lot of help and, as they discuss publicly how they do it, other women can better gauge the cost of having the top job. Some CEOs even admit they have a wife. They don’t use that word. Supportive partner, lead parent, Mr Mom, stay-athome dad, wingman and primary care giver are the expressions they prefer. But the outcome is the same; many chief executive women are finding the only way to cope is to have a partner who runs the home front.
“Remember when everyone used to say that behind every successful man is a wife? Well, it turns out it’s true, successful women also need a wife,” says Kramer, who is now on the board of Australia Post, AMP, Channel 9 and, soon, Woolworths. Kramer and her husband, Malcolm Noad, employed a live-in nanny when their daughter Jesse was a baby while Noad ran a rugby league club and Kramer held a senior position at Telstra. By the time Kramer was appointed to run Best & Less, her husband was ready for retirement – and full-time home duties.
“He’d had a successful career and was ready to step back – it’s one of the advantages of marrying an old guy,” she quips.
Kramer is relaxed about saying that her daughter had three parents and that she and Noad were in a financial position to afford top care when their daughter was young.
“People ask me how do you do it and I say don’t ask me, ask those who can’t afford to have the sort of support we got. We had great support when Jesse was young and it suited us for Malcolm to step back when he did and I see many other successful women come to that conclusion too.”
When The Deal asked several female CEOs to describe their domestic arrangements, we expected to hear tales of woe, feats of juggling and lots of staff, especially since it was disclosed that the Facebook COO and author of Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, has a retinue of nannies and housekeepers. Instead, we found that more women chiefs are stumbling into an old stereotype, where one partner steps back to support the other’s career.
Marlow says the decision she and her partner took happened organically: “I hadn’t thought that much about what I’d do if I got this position but when Richard’s job was relocated to Singapore when the girls were in primary school, we just came to that decision.”
When Marlow was appointed boss five years ago, she and Richard had full-time jobs at Microsoft and they managed “thanks to technology, a long-term nanny, timetables and lots of organising”. Her husband’s job relocation changed everything.
“He takes the primary role at home. He loves to cook and he takes the kids to and from school but I do things too. I was class mother this year and I even did tuckshop for a day because [daughter] Lucy said it was really, really important to her.”
With two daughters in early secondary years, Marlow has found that parenting doesn’t necessarily get easier as children grow older — it gets more complex and, if anything, more demanding of parents’ attention and time.
“It’s one thing to give food, shelter and car rides when kids are young but it’s so important in those formative teenage years to have lots of conversations, tough conversations sometimes, and to work as a partnership. The teenage years are in many ways more important.”
Having arrived at a solution by happenstance, Marlow is phlegmatic about plans for the future.
“It will continue to evolve as we figure out what works for us as a family and we’ll ask not just what I need but what Richard needs and the girls. At different times, people need to lean in and at other times lean back. But it’s important not to be defined by someone else’s label. Richard has personal goals. He trains for triathlons. It’s not all about how he supports me.”
Argaman, with three children aged seven to 20, has had lots of support through the years with two long-term nannies and a supportive mother-in-law but it was when she took on the top job at TFE that she faced her biggest test.
“I was 42 when I was made CEO and by the time the 100-day meeting came around I had to tell them I was pregnant,” she says. “Fortunately it wasn’t an issue for them. Business is built on relationships and people just get it when you say we have to meet at a cafe near my home or I have to feed my baby or I’ll have to phone into a board meeting.”
She wasn’t always so comfortable with business colleagues.
“I remember when my son was home sick and I had to make a business call with Mark in my arms and at one stage during the conversation, he vomited and I kept talking. It was terrible. What was I thinking?”
Rachel’s husband, Michael, is still working full-time with the TFE group but he is the one who runs the domestic diary.
“He travels less in his role. He does all the cooking. He does the washing and he’s very much there for the children. He holds down two jobs – at work and at home – I only do one. And he does so much of the parenting because I have to travel so much.”
The idea that more men – and often successful men – are taking the role of lead parent at home has become a hot issue in the US since Slaughter’s book and the recent article by her husband, Andrew Moravcsik, where he admitted that he was the lead parent in their home.
Moravcsik, who is also a professor at Princeton, said: “To this day, I am listed first on emergency forms; I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis.”
Similar stories have been told by Carly Fiorina, former HP CEO and presidential hopeful, whose husband Frank retired from a top job at the age of 48 to support her career. It’s also told by Janet Yellen, the US Federal Reserve head, whose Nobel prize-winning husband George Akerlof stepped back from his career to take on full-on fathering.
“If you counted up how many hours each of us logged, he certainly gets more than 50 per cent,” Yellen said recently.
Coca-Cola Amatil chief executive Alison Watkins has paid tribute to her husband, who stepped back from his work in investment banking after the birth of their fourth child in 2001. When interviewed for these pages last year, she again credited her husband Rod for taking on the caring role in the family and added that “women will only be able to do more inside organisations when they are not doing everything inside the home as well”.
But while CEO clubs buzz with tales of husbands leaning back, the statistics don’t support the anecdotes yet. In Australia, only 3 per cent of families have a mother who works full-time and a father who is either at home or working part-time. And when author, Annabel Crabb, researched her book, The
Wife Drought, she found only two out of 31 CEO women had husbands taking the lead at home.
The phenomenon also surprises former women CEOs. Director Belinda Hutchinson admits she finds it “amazing” and reels off stories about women executives and politicians whose husbands have stepped back from their careers.
“When I went back to work, I had to get a live-in nanny but we didn’t have maternity leave and my husband’s view was – you look after the baby because I’ve got to go to work. He ’d started his own business and had a lot of international travel so we didn’t have much choice.”
Louise Herron, CEO of the Sydney Opera House, says: “It’s not just CEOs but women in big jobs [who are handing primary care roles to partners]. I think it’s pretty recent. I’ve only become conscious of it in the past five years but it’s obviously gaining social acceptability.”
Herron, however, has her mother Isabel to thank for helping her balance career and the raising of two sons, now 22 and 25 years old. “I never had to be at the pick-up at 6.01pm,” she says. For the first 10 years of her boys’ lives, her mother was either living with them or nearby, something Herron says was crucial, especially after her first marriage broke down when she was a partner at Minter Ellison.
“I took 10 weeks off with Dougal but I breastfed both boys until they were one so I remember doing what I called the milk run for quite a while. I’d go to work late or go home early so I could continue to breastfeed.”
Herron says having that support, “is not just great for the mother, it’s great for the children. They have maintained a very close relationship with her and I don’t feel I’ve missed out on any key experience.” (Except, she adds, the first triumph in the potty).
Wendy McCarthy, who raised three children when she was head of Family Planning and deputy chair of the ABC, questions whether gender stereotypes are simply being reversed rather than erased.
“Why would you substitute one stereotype for another? I think that’s zero progress really. I do respect men who are not afraid to make those choices but I always felt that as a family it’s important to get everyone to share roles.”
McCarthy points out that her generation “didn’t work as hard or with the electronic exposure that women have today. We also had something called working hours.”
Ann Sherry, who has held a couple of CEO positions and is now head of Carnival Australia, says she too knows more senior women with partners at home but adds: “CEO pay is much better than it was in the 80s or 90s and women are earning good money at earlier ages, when they’re likely to have kids at home. So, some of this might be demographics.”
Sherry says that she and her husband coped with home help and joint efforts but when she was appointed CEO of Westpac New Zealand in 2002, “Michael stepped back to run a small business and his stepping out of a big corporate role did give us more flexibility”.
The trend of flexing in and out of top jobs no doubt owes something to change in the workplace, the gradual rise of women (17 per cent of Australian CEOs are women) but also the attitude of new generations, who consistently rate flexibility, constant learning and lifestyle considerations in their job choices. There has also been a rewriting of the marriage contract and a growing recognition of the caring contract. But if there’s more sharing to be done in the home, there might have to be a rewriting of the corporate contract so that “wife” is not part of the package for a CEO.