Married to the job

Many women are finding that `wifely' qualities are leading them into a rut in the workplace, writes Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online
There is a growing tendency to talk glowingly of the virtues women bring to modern business life. Even many males who previously were adamant that half the population belonged in the home rather than the factory or office have come round to the notion that personal skills, communication strengths and the ability to do more than one thing at once are more the natural preserve of women than men.

However, for all this progress, it appears that many women have merely swapped one kitchen for another, and will recognise at least some of the manifestations of a phenomenon that Anne Huff, professor of strategic management at Cranfield School of Management, calls the "organisation wife". Professor Huff first encountered it when she took on some administrative duties in a previous academic role. Though she was successful in that aspect, she began to suspect that this did not matter to her colleagues and superiors. She got little thanks for something that led to a great infusion of cash and technology to her college and saw colleagues who had concentrated on their academic work moving ahead.

"I came to see," she writes in the latest issue of Cranfield's biannual publication Management Focus, "that being an administrator is the worst of being the traditional wife. What those around you want are hot meals on time. They do not want to know how it's done. They rarely say thank you. Nonetheless, it all has to be done over again the next day."

Since that realisation, she has grown to take the idea more seriously and believes that just as she and other working women are shedding traditional "wifely" roles in the home, they are assuming them in the workplace - often to the detriment of their careers.

Pointing out that the organisational wife typically thinks about others, organises details, is deferential, negotiates and seeks peace rather than war, she says she is concerned "that the wifely tendencies so many of us share take time". And what should be seen as a warning to any female graduates entering managerial or professional jobs, she adds: "They easily displace needed professional qualities. They lead us to miss opportunities for learning and promotion. Too many of us are spending too much of our time being wives of our organisations."

Professor Huff believes that there are five things "that seem to make the likelihood of becoming a wife of the organisation depressingly high even in the most `professional' job".

The first is the willingness of most women to have more "personal connections" than many male colleagues. They ask questions about people, their families and the rest that gives "context" to tasks and is the first step towards wifely behaviour.

Next comes having "radar" that alerts them to the needs of others and the tasks that still remain to be done. Men, on the other hand, do not become involved and seem to be more successful for it.

Third, women often make up for feeling uncomfortable in the professional world by performing the tasks with which they are familiar - "mother, sister, wife, lover", but especially "wife".

The final two factors are the increasing need for communication and co- ordination skills - both of which women tend to have - and the need of organisations to establish and reproduce routines. After taking the notes in a meeting or marshalling a database two or three times, "the wifely role becomes part of the organisation's way of getting things done".

So how can they get out of this rut? Among the things that women - those already established in careers as well as those just setting out - must do are learn how to say no, learn to relinquish control over the trivial, be willing to share tasks connected with relationships that still need to be done, expect more from male colleagues and less from female ones, learn to focus, and be more inclined to put themselves first.

One way of doing this is to be what Professor Huff calls "self-reflective"; another is to use the language of Albert Hirschman's book Exit, Voice and Loyalty and complain or leave when dissatisfied rather than stick with it out of loyalty.

Or, as she says in the conclusion, "I think we should all stand back and be much more cautious about when and how we offer up the limited number of hours each of us has at our command"

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