‘The small decisions that made me financially dependent on a man.’

I have a recurring work fantasy. But it’s incredibly mundane – no steamy sex on the boardroom table or surprise massive bonus. My ultimate work dream is to be able to work a full day uninterrupted, knowing my husband is responsible for school drop off, pick up, afternoon snacks and dinner.

But that’s impossible. Although my spouse would gladly help out more at home if he could, he’s Primary Breadwinner; locked into the demands of a full-time role with a long commute and regular travel. This leaves me in charge of the domestic front, balancing my position as primary carer of our two children (aged 10 and 6) with a variety of freelance jobs.

Our household division of labour is the unintended product of countless choices we’ve made over the last decade. On their own, each decision (such as me not returning to my old job after the arrival of our second child) didn’t seem particularly ground-breaking. But their cumulative impact has been monumental:  I was recently horrified to realise I’ve become financially dependent on a man.

Don and Betty Draper in Mad Men. Image via Pinterest.

“He is your husband, you know” a friend gently chided when I shared my dismay.  This is true – and he’s always at pains to point out that it’s ‘our’ money – but that’s not the point.  There’s a bigger issue than what’s taking place in our little microcosm of family life.

My generation was raised to believe that being female was no barrier to achieving our dreams.  “Anything boys can do, girls can do better,” I’d taunt my brother when we were kids. We girls would have it all:  education, career, family.

And for years – during school, university, in the workforce and at home, I considered myself equal to the males around me. I could never have predicted that becoming a parent would make it laughable I once subscribed to the feminist slogan that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

The long days dictated by many workplaces simply don’t match the needs of young children. How do you care for toddlers lurching from one illness to the next while keeping up with meetings and deadlines? How do you feed ravenous preschoolers if you’re not even home until 6pm? And how do you reconcile 4 weeks of annual leave with 12 weeks of school holidays each year?

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Outsourcing is one solution, but it’s generally less stressful if one parent is flexible. Unfortunately though, ‘flexible’ has become synonymous with ‘female’.

As journalist Matt Wade recently wrote: “Workplace norms and even the tax system tend to favour families with a primary earner, normally a man, and a secondary or non-earner, normally a woman.”

Statistics back this up: of Australian couple families with kids under the age of 15, 60 per cent have a dad who works full-time, and a mum who works part-time or not at all.  In contrast, just 3 per cent have a mum who works full-time and a dad who is at home or works part-time.

But choosing to be secondary earner can have unforeseen repercussions.

Over the years, while my man has been busy advancing his career and I’ve been in and out of an assortment of part-time/contract/freelance roles, I’ve clocked up 10,000 hours at home – the magic number which Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers deems to be required for success in any field.  And unwittingly, I’ve found that I’ve become an expert in the uninteresting, unglamorous – and unpaid – arena of ‘home duties.’

I never used to be any more skilled than my husband at spotting the beginnings of conjunctivitis in littlies’ eyes, or baking healthy treats for school lunchboxes, or masterminding the swimming lesson-dentist check up-haircut timetable.  But these days, I’m Domestic Goddess, super-efficient at almost all the minutiae involved in the smooth running of our household.

Eva Longoria played the stereotypical 'housewife' in Desperate Housewives. Image via Tumblr.

This expertise, combined with the inflexibility of my husband’s job, perpetuates our division of labour, keeping me tied to the kids and him chained to the breadwinner role.  And I’ve realised that if we don’t change things soon, our split of duties will become even more entrenched.  As Cordelia Fine asserts, “the more a woman adapts her career to family commitments, and the longer the accommodation goes on, the wider the gap between his and her salary and career potential becomes… so it becomes increasingly rational to sacrifice her career to his".

So what’s the solution?

Dominic McGann is one of Queensland’s Male Champions of Change (a similar group to the one formed in NSW in 2010 by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick), and the Chairman of Partners of law firm McCullough Robertson, an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality.

McGann tells me his firm is pushing hard to ensure flexible working arrangements are available to all staff – female or male.

He admits there are less men than women in flexible working arrangements at McCulloughs.  But McGann is clearly a thought leader who understands that equality is not simply a female issue. “It’s so much easier to say no, that something new can’t be done,” he says. “But for real change to occur, you have to push the boundaries, be imaginative and be determined.”

Speaking to McGann is like feeling the first gust of the winds of change.  Because for the most part, my husband and I have been dealing with employers who are unable – or unwilling – to think outside the square in order to create workplaces which are truly ‘family friendly’.  And although I don’t regret any of the choices I’ve made, my path would have been very different if I’d had managers who had supported my decisions (such as putting my children into preschool and not long day care), instead of punishing me for them.

Author, Elana Benjamin.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

It’s worth remembering that just 60 years ago in the United States, law firm recruiters commonly told women that although they would be willing to hire a female, the firm’s senior partner or clients would never agree to a female lawyer. [Source:  Mary Mullarkey cited in Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender, p41]  Sixty years from now, it’s likely our grandchildren will look back with similar disbelief at our generation’s poor record of gender equality:  only 10.1 per cent of Australia’s top 200 ASX-listed companies currently have females in key executive positions.

But who can wait for the slow, incremental change that only takes place over decades?  Certainly not me.

I’ve realised that the way forward is to seek out the Dominic McGanns of the world and target their organisations as potential employers.  Because I’m perfectly capable of being both a breadwinner and a caregiver.  And so is my husband.

We just need the opportunity to prove it.

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