They are our secret weapons, but we dare not speak their names. Perhaps it’s pride; a touch of embarrassment; a measure of martyrdom. But too many women fail to acknowledge the support of their partners. I am one of them.
My big, farty, hairy hunk of husband is a feminist role model. (He hates it when I call him this, preferring the term “equalist”.)
As head of an all-male department at a television network, he brought hands-on parenting into the workplace: leaving early to pick up the kids; swapping shifts so I could build my career; and changing nappies in the car park. This was alien, in a world where fathers worked longer hours to “bring home the bacon”.
As academic Anne-Marie Slaughter said at last year’s World Economic Forum, this is “the part of the story that does not get told … Caregiver men are essential to the advance of competitor women.”
However, she says, men won’t want to do this until caregiving has the same prestige as breadwinning.
This conflict ends many a marriage. One woman, in the trenches of domestic warfare, watched as her hitherto loving husband tore down photos, awards and memorabilia from her home office – anything representing her stellar career.
Another swallowed her ambitions until she – literally – lost her voice. It was a whisper until she stood up to her husband and went back to work.
Author and social commentator Jane Caro has never had this problem with her partner of 40 years, Ralph. “Whenever I felt under attack or like a failure, Ralph came out fighting on my behalf,” she says.
At her retirement press conference, former Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly echoed Caro’s words: “I would like to thank one special person, and that’s my husband, Allan. He’s encouraged me to be bold, to back myself, to be the very best I can be. There’s no way I could do what I do without him.”
Despite the hype surrounding stay-at-home dads, they’re still as rare as female CEOs in blue-chip companies. Only 3 per cent of Australian families have mothers who work full-time and a father who is at home, or works part-time.
Wendy Harmer has been the breadwinner throughout her 21-year marriage to Brendan Donohoe.
“Our bargain was that if I earned the money, it would enable him to follow his passion for environmental causes, and he’s done that,” she says. “He’s an excellent father, so involved in the children’s lives. It’s definitely Dad’s taxi!”
She says the only thing that rankles is when he’s called “Mr Harmer”.
“He’s definitely a person in his own right, with a rock-solid sense of self.”
However, many men feel uncomfortable in traditional female roles: some simply don’t want to do it; others are excluded. One day, my hubby watched in horror as every mother and toddler in the Gymbaroo circle moved away from him.
We need to welcome men into such spaces, instead of alternately rejecting or lionising them. It’s lovely hearing things like, “You’re so lucky to have a husband like that!” Yes, I am. But it shouldn’t be that unusual.
In our house, hubby does all the housework; I do all the cooking. For years, I refused to write about this, fearing that a) women would hate me, and b) men would think of hubby as emasculated, or c) I’d no longer be seen as “doing it all”.
Well, f… that.
Behind every great woman, there is a great man. Or woman. Or a terrific team, comprising family, friends and paid help.
The superwoman myth should be smashed, once and for all. And our blokes might well be our best weapons.