How to spot the undercurrent of inequality in your relationship
Most career women are smart enough to find a partner who values fairness and loves that she is ambitious, opinionated and clever. But finding Mr. Equality is only the first hurdle. You then have to help him stay that way.
Could it be that one of the most important career decisions you make is the choice of life partner? Sheryl Sandberg certainly thinks so. In “Lean In”, her celebrated manifesto for the modern career woman, Sandberg exhorts us not to marry “the bad boys, the cool boys, the crazy boys and those who are commitment phobic”. Rather, she advises, “When the time comes to settle down, find someone who wants an equal partner, someone who thinks women should be smart, opinionated and ambitious. Someone who values fairness and expects or, even better, wants to do his share in the home.”
I couldn’t agree more. If you’re not supported at home what hope is there of continuing your career and having a family? The last thing a woman needs is to be fighting a war on both fronts – tackling gender bias in the workplace and battling outdated stereotypes that leave you shouldering the entire weight of the domestic burden.
So how supportive is your partner, and if you’re still looking for Mr. Equality, how will you know he’s going to support you in all the right ways when the time comes to have a kid?
It’s not as easy as you think. A man who does his fair share around the house before kids come along can undergo a frightening metamorphosis when a new baby arrives on the scene. Suddenly there’s a lot more to do and learn and adapt to and little time in which to do it. Compromises need to be made, responsibilities assumed and freedoms curbed – ideally by both of you. But when the time comes, far too many men undergo a seismic shift in behaviour and attitude that catapults their poor unsuspecting partner (that’s you) back to square one: left holding the baby.
Consider my client Chloe (not her real name), a cool sassy woman of 35 with letters after her name, who is revered by colleagues and clients alike as a leading expert in her field. When her daughter Lara was born two years ago there was no question in her mind that she’d go back to work after Maternity Leave, and her partner Matt, always proud and supportive of her success, was wholly in favour of the idea. So he made a suggestion: her salary would be applied towards the cost of childcare, and his would cover general living and lifestyle expenses. All seems perfectly fair, right?
Actually, wrong. What Chloe failed to realise was that beneath this apparently sensible division of resources there lurked an underlying assumption that would prove harmful to the equality that had so distinguished their relationship in the past. That assumption was this: the cost of childcare was her responsibility and quickly began to look like a condition of her return to work. Before long both Chloe and her partner talked about Chloe’s work solely in financial terms, it’s value reduced to the meager pickings left in her account each month after nursery fees and back-up childcare costs. It was only a matter of time before they had that fateful conversation that ends where so many conversations between new parents ends: with the decision that Chloe give up her hard won career because “What’s the point?” when all she is doing is working to pay for childcare?
So another successful career bites the dust. Chloe says good bye not just to her existing salary, but to the invisible but critical benefits of staying in the workforce even after you have children: future earnings, pension benefits, self confidence, autonomy, fulfillment, opportunities for growth and, let’s be honest, her best defence against domestic servitude.
Who’s to blame? Well we women are of course, when we all too willingly give up work because we think working is no longer worth it economically. However, it’s not entirely our fault. There are many cases similar to Chloe’s involving partners who, whether they realize it or not, behave and talk in a way that creates an undercurrent of inequality in the relationship. If you’re not sure what I mean, consider the case against Matt:
1. His stay at home mother is his idol: Throughout their relationship Matt made constant references to the fact that his mother had given up work to look after him and his siblings, how she was “always there” for them, and that this is why he felt he had the perfect childhood.
2. He volunteers his time for domestic chores: When it came to sharing the domestic chores, his approach was always “What do you want me to do?” This created a false hierarchy of domestic responsibility in the home – Chloe inadvertently assuming full responsibility for all things domestic, delegating limited selected tasks to Matt when he made himself available to help.
3. He’s focused only on the numbers: In conversations about their respective jobs, Matt would always focus on the financials – the pay rises, the bonuses – and the relative value of each salary, which would later became the only criteria for measuring the value and importance of Chloe returning to work after baby Lara was born.
Whether you’re a man or a woman reading this article, chances are you raised a quizzical eyebrow as you read through that list. Matt actually sounds like a good guy – grateful to his mother, willing and helpful at home and transparent about his earnings. I’ll be the first to say that if you meet or already have a guy like Matt in your life then hang on to him he sounds like a great catch, a guy Sandberg would approve of. But when baby comes along, things change.
As you’ve seen from Chloe’s example, a man that ticks all the right boxes before baby comes along could well turn into the man who inadvertently undermines your career at a future date. If you don’t want this to happen, you need to take preventive action. Here’s some help to get you started:
1. Counter with a different success story: Whenever he talks about his mother or anyone else he knows who gave up their career to stay at home to raise the kids, always counter with stories of women you know who’s mother worked when growing up but were brilliant role models for their children. If this was your experience, even better, but it doesn’t have to be. You’re not trying to prove that one choice is better than the other, you’re just presenting the counter argument, one that will give you greater freedom to choose when the time comes.
2. Discuss the non-financial benefits of your career: When discussing your career with your partner, don’t limit your conversations to financial matters like salary, or to the things you dislike about your current job. It’s extremely important to be able to talk about your career in terms of the non financial rewards it brings you – the great sense of satisfaction you experienced after a major deal, the confidence you felt giving a successful presentation, the strong camaraderie in the office, the impressive feedback from a big client, to name but a few. You want to help your partner appreciate (and perhaps remind yourself) that there is more to being a career woman than the number that reaches your bank balance at the end of every month.
3. Share and alternate responsibility for domestic chores: When it comes to domestic chores, don’t let your partner slip into bad habits like expecting you to delegate what needs to be done, and expecting a lifetime achievement award every time he does the washing up. While it’s important to say “thank you” in a relationship, make sure you are sending the message that you are grateful to his contribution to the joint endeavor that is your domestic happiness, and not thanking him because he’s left you with one less job to do. In particular, watch out for language like “I’ve done my share” and “that’s not my job”, and make sure he knows how to do everything (work the washing machine, the dishwasher, the iron!) even if you agree that you’ll be the one in charge of that particular task.
Most career women I know were smart enough to partner with men who were supportive of their career and valued fairness in the home. But too many have stood by helplessly as their Mr. Equality morphed into a man with a misplaced sense of entitlement (I bring in the money so it’s your job to do everything else) that can cost her and their relationship dearly. It’s a scary prospect, but one that should be easy enough to avoid if you see it coming and take evasive measures.
If you’re already married (or partnered) with kids, did you notice a shift in the balance of equality at home? If the answer is yes, did you see it coming? If you’ve got any tips for the next generation of career women, we’d love to hear them.