IF you want to get ahead, maybe get a househusband. Or so, apparently, says the woman behind a new initiative to get more women into the boardroom.
The City fund manager Helena Morrissey, whose own husband Richard decided to stay home after their fourth child was born, reportedly told the Sunday Times yesterday that 'the idea that a woman can have a family and friends and hold down a difficult, high octane job when both partners work full-time — that is a very tall order. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s a bit unrealistic.' Something has to give and, it seems, that something is increasingly husbands: men staying at home was, Morrissey added, 'one of the things that definitely helps unlock that pipeline of women' into the top ranks of business (she founded the 30 Per Cent Club, dedicated to getting more women on boards, which holds its first meeting today).
Admittedly the Morrisseys aren't quite your average family: they have nine children and she manages funds worth almost £50 billion, putting her pretty much at the extreme edge of working motherhood. But still, it's hard to argue with her logic: there are some jobs that can't be done unless you have someone at home doing all the domestic backup. You can't work an 80 hour week and be willing to jump on a flight to New York at an hour's notice unless you have either a fleet of nannies working around the clock, or a spouse at home taking care of absolutely everything. Once upon a time that would have been a wife, but as more and more women start doing these kinds of punishing long hours jobs in the senior reaches of business, law and politics, you can see why househusbands are proliferating: as far back as 2001, the American magazine Fortune found 30 per cent of the women at its Most Powerful Women in Business summit had househusbands. And for some couples it undoubtedly works, so long as they're both doing what plays to their natural strengths.
But there's something about this argument that troubles me nonetheless. To say that men will only get to the top if their wives stay at home sounds snortingly reactionary: we assume nowadays that women are perfectly entitled to careers of their own, thanks very much. So why is it fine to suggest that women can only get to the top by pushing their husbands back into the kitchen?
The real question is surely whether it's fair for a job to consume quite so much of anyone's time that they need a second adult devoting their lives to making that job possible - perhaps at the expense of their own ambitions. Should families have to reorganise themselves around the kind of schedule Morrissey describes, rising at 5am and putting in 60 hours a week? Or would it be healthier to reorganise the crazy hours instead? I can't help wondering whether the rise of the executive househusband is actually letting some employers off the hook.