Women at work: how to be the great man behind the great woman

Draw up a list of chores and then divide them equally to achieve parity

If behind every great man there’s a great woman, a cliché with origins that go back a century, who is behind every great woman? Well, he may be a misunderstood man and a little confused about gender roles.

He probably believes that he and his partner share an equal focus on their careers (65 per cent of men in relationships told The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI Women at Work survey that both partners were equally focused on their careers), and that men and women move up the career ladder at the same rate (56 per cent of men said males and females progress at the same rate in work).

However, women saw things differently. Forty-six per cent of women said men progress faster at work, and 23 per cent said their partner was more focused on his career. When asked what is holding women back in the workplace, men did not mention family responsibilities as one of the major factors. For women, it was the second most important factor.

There was a significant disparity in perception between women and men of the effect of home life on careers.


Bernadette Ryan of Relationships Ireland sees many couples in distress as they struggle to combine dual careers and family. “Usually the woman has felt overburdened for quite some time and has built up quite a bit of resentment towards her partner, who may be blissfully unaware of the seething resentment,” she says.

Four out of 10 Irish people believe that “a lot of men are confused about their roles because they are less defined than they used to be,” research shows.

Traditional gender division of labour is more prevalent in Ireland than in nearly all other European countries; 70 per cent of women aged between 20 and 50 do more than 75 per cent of the household work, even though most are in the workforce.

Dilution of focus
What this means for women's careers is a dilution of focus. "She needs to be the successful, driving career person at work, and the devoted doing-it-all wife at home. The men are not being fair and they don't realise they are being unfair," says Margret Fine-Davis of TCD, author of the nationwide study Attitudes to Family Formation in Ireland, which highlighted men's confusion.

“Men don’t recognise they have to contribute more because their role is in transition and is not clear-cut,” she adds.

Half of men (48 per cent) in Fine-Davis’s study agreed that working women have less time for housework, yet most men aren’t doing any more to make up for it.

“Men are not seeing what women are seeing and feeling,” says Fine-Davis. Two-thirds of women in her study believed that “there’s an awful lot of lip service paid to ‘sharing responsibilities,’ but it’s still a man’s world at the end of the day.”

Just 39 per cent of men thought the same.

Men no longer believe it’s a man’s world and at work, they say they are not threatened by successful women and don’t mind taking orders from them, her study found. Yet women have a very different perception. Most women believe that men do feel threatened by successful women.

“While most men and women of the current generation of young parents vow that they are never going to be like mum or dad, we tend to assume similar patterns and recreate this world and we cannot understand if the person we love clearly wants to create a different world,” says Brendan Madden of Relationships Ireland.

Couples who succeed in both the workplace and in a stable, happy home life have communication styles that prioritise listening and understanding, which helps repair the inevitable impact of the stress of combining work and family life.

Less threatened
The good news from the research is that men are less threatened by their careers and more willing to take responsibility at home than many women realise.

A great man behind a great woman would, Madden suggests, be one who joins in “getting back to basics” and draws up a list of chores to establish who does what. “Couples are often surprised at just how much effort goes into keeping everything going smoothly,” says Madden.

Adjusting work patterns can be helpful, if employers offer this. When flexi-time, term-time and working from home are offered to men, they are as likely to take it up as women are, Fine-Davis's research found. Co-parenting, as in equal participating in child-rearing, was an aspiration for 50 per cent of young couples, The Fathers and Mothers Study for the Family Support Agency found.

The great man behind a great woman? He knows that when women get ahead in the workplace, he will take up his fair share of drudgery at home, and not just pay lip service.