Working women's wife envy

Are career women in want of a wife ... or a maid?

Published August 14, 2007 10:30AM (EDT)

I read the New York Times' weekend piece about working women "in dire need of a wife" with a smirk of recognition: I can no longer count the number of times a hardworking and single female friend has shouted, "I need a wife!" But, really, what they're saying in an ironic, "post-feminist" way is, "I need a personal assistant who can keep my calendar, wash my clothes, clean my apartment and remind me to call my friends on their birthdays!" What working person wouldn't want that? But, according to reporter Shira Boss' analysis, working women in particular are experiencing wife envy because they see their married male colleagues as having a significant career advantage.

"The real challenge is, companies expect you to perform as if someone is at home taking care of everything for you," Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, told the Times. "Some men are better positioned to deal with these corporate demands, because they do have someone at home. Most women don't." Even working wives are more likely than husbands to perform those "wifely" duties as a second shift of work, says Boss. The same goes for working couples who can afford outside help: The task of managing and overseeing domestic help still typically falls to the wife.

There does seem to be a general career advantage to being married: Both married men and women tend to earn more than their single counterparts. But, according to Boss, "married women make an average 17 percent more than unmarried women ... while married men make 42 percent more than unmarried men." More convincing, though, is a 2004 study of twins that controlled for "education and genetics" and found that "married male twins made 26 percent more than their unmarried brothers." (Though perhaps whatever mysterious ingredient helped in securing a wife also assisted their career ladder climb.)

What about the single guys, though? Aren't they keeping us women good company in our wife coveting? The Times addresses these bachelors with an odd aside that "even ... feminists" recognize the bachelors' similar plight, but explains that the "common response is that the situations are not the same, because of individual and societal expectations that tend disproportionately to pressure women." The argument seems to be that bachelors don't care about the state of their home, but women -- single or not -- can't rid themselves of their desire to appear to be good housekeepers. (As a single, working woman who has very successfully eschewed all standards of good housekeeping, I'm having some trouble with that assumption!)

The bigger challenge, though -- which applies in different ways to both couples and singles, men and women -- is working under a corporate model that relies on a vision of domestic life that plain doesn't exist for most people anymore.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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