James is a successful young solicitor. His wife Sarah is also a solicitor; she returned to work a year after the birth of her youngest child, now four years old. She enjoys her job, and James is, of course, extremely supportive of her career ambitions. Or, at any rate, that's what he tells her to her face. But, after a few glasses of Chardonnay and with a strict guarantee of anonymity, he will admit the guilty truth. He'd love it if Sarah would give up her job, and stay at home with the children.
"It would make the most incredible difference to my life," he says. "The house would run like clockwork, the children would be a lot happier, and I'd be able to get on with my job without keeping one eye on the clock. At the moment we divide the evenings we can work late between us. But I hate the feeling that I'm not seen as reliable at work because I have to bring my home life into the equation. It's something you really don't think of when you decide to start a family."
James's fantasies of chasing his wife back into the kitchen may be politically incorrect, but he is not alone in wishing he had a spouse prepared to abandon her briefcase. It's not just outdated nostalgia for the image of the "perfect" wife and homemaker, or even the result of stress - although many men, as well as women, now feel the pressure of juggling work and home. New research is starting to suggest that men with stay-at-home wives do better in the office.
The current issue of Fortune, a leading American business magazine, reports that studies carried out at universities in Chicago show that men in dual- career families with children earn less and are less successful at gaining promotion. Men whose wives take care of the children and are home full- time do not suffer in the same way: those with a solid support system at home can work round the clock or jet off on a troubleshooting mission at a moment's notice; men who have to get home by six to relieve the nanny can't do that.
Certainly, the Hansons, Ronsons, Fortes, Goldsmiths and Packers of this world did not get where they are today by shouldering their fair share of the school runs and dashing round the supermarket after work. Fortune puts it starkly: "The ultimate male status symbol is not a fancy car or a fancy second home or a wife with a fancy career. You've really made it, buddy, if you can afford a wife who doesn't work. She may be a drag on earnings, but she provides a rare modern luxury: peace on the home front."
Very true, according to Charles, who is 37 and works in the City. His wife runs her own catering business, but secretly he's prepared to confess he'd rather she saved her cooking for the family. "We could just about get by on my salary alone, but my wife would hit the roof if I suggested she wound up her business to stay home to further my career," he says. "I really wouldn't dare bring it up. But it would be wonderful for me. At work, they know damn well you've got kids and that you can't drop everything. So when there is a crisis, they don't even ask you. Someone else gets the overnight train to Glasgow and
turns up next morning in the client's office to solve the problem, and, of course, they get the credit for it. These things do not go unnoticed when it comes to climbing the career ladder."
"It would be wonderful not having to shoe-horn everything into our pathetically tiny quota of leisure time," agrees Edward, 31, a colleague of Charles's. "If all the home chores could get done while I was at work we could actually have some quality time at the weekends, rather than rushing to the garden centre, taking the cat to the vet and the kids to the swimming pool, and joining everyone else in the mad dash round Sainsbury's."
Even without children, the relief of having a partner looking after the home front is tempting. "Our lives would be great if my wife could stay home," confides Richard, a 32-year-old journalist. "It would be like having a mother or a nanny - someone to look after you, get the bills paid on time, keep the house clean and the clean shirts coming. It's a full-time job in its own right, really - working couples are actually holding down three jobs between them."
The "question of the 90s", as Fortune puts it - whether businesses are penalising the family - is about to be investigated in Britain. The Institute of Personnel and Development has just started to research the position of working fathers. "This kind of prejudice could well be taking root," says Melissa Compton-Edwards of the IPD. "We all know about discrimination against women, but this is translating into prejudice against anyone with children who can't put the hours in." Pressure group Parents At Work, which is concerned with childcare-related issues, is also planning a major campaign to raise the profile of working fathers.
It will be an uphill struggle, says Richard, 45, who is slogging his way up the City ladder with three children aged 14, 11 and four on his coat tails. "One of the main barriers is attitude. You are expected to put the hours in and any concessions are grudging. Being a dad isn't acknowledged in any positive way. It's a kind of office macho-ness."
Olwyn Burgess, head of career counselling at outplacement specialists Cepec, confirms that men are now suffering from family-prejudice in the same way that women have for years. "A friend of mine made a classic mistake," she says. "He was asked back to a second interview, and it was on a day when he had to pick up his child from school. The company refused to reschedule the second interview and he wasn't asked back. They said if he wanted the job he should make other childcare arrangements. When men adopt a more female approach and make it known they would like to take an active part in family life, they are often seen as weak."
Around 25 per cent of British companies now offer "parent-friendly" policies, with options such as periods of extended leave or part-time work. In practice, however, the vast majority of takers are mothers rather than fathers. "Men don't want to look like under-achievers," says Burgess. "Even if their organisation has family friendly policies, there is an incredible reticence among men about taking them up."
She is not surprised by the notion that a wife is a great asset. "We see a lot of directors, heads of finance, senior managers, and a lot of them have wives who have made their career in being a wife. Of course it makes life easier. I often think I could do with one myself!"
Those who do have the advantage of a Managing Director (Domestic Affairs) on the home front can consider themselves fortunate. Gina Chambers, 44, believes that running her home and looking after her two sons, Adam, now eight, and Ian, 14, has been beneficial to everyone in the family. "I have time to do the things that are important. I can go to sports day and the Christmas play at the boys' schools, and I can get the chores done in the day, so we don't have to catch up with jobs or do a major shop at weekends and we have our freedom. My husband's job takes him abroad a lot, and he's the first to agree he couldn't do what he's doing if he wasn't confident that everything was running smoothly at home."
Many are not so lucky. Those with career ambitions may have to resign themselves to the fact that those who want to shine at work have to give 100 per cent to it. Driving ambition and driving the children to their piano lessons simply don't mix. "Employers want full commitment and we accept it," says Dianah Worman, policy adviser on equal opportunities issues at IPD. "The emphasis on long hours and hard work is increasing rather than decreasing. Support systems at home are vital if you want to be completely committed, so the guy with a wife at home will have a better chance than the guy with a wife with a career. You can't change this culture overnight; things are improving in that at least the issue is being recognised."
So how much would the ultimate 1990s status symbol actually cost? In 1993, the Legal & General insurance company worked out the yearly cost of running a wife at home; the total was pounds 18,150, rising to pounds 23,764, for the mother of a single, one-year-old child. It makes the BMW look like a rather affordable luxury.
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