Half a Wife: the Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back

What women want

Half a Wife: the Working Family's Guide to Getting a Life Back
Gaby Hinsliff
Chatto & Windus, 288pp, £12.99

The other night, I found myself sitting next to a successful businessman who seemed a little perplexed by the shape of my working life - I am based at home and work highly irregular, if often long, hours. I wish I had read Half a Wife before our slightly irritable conversation, because it would have reminded me not only how common a pattern this is, but also how forward-looking it is.

Far from paddling in the shallows of the formal economy, those of us who have who built up a "portfolio career" - and no, I would never normally use the term - sharing domestic tasks equitably with an equally work-flexible partner, are at the leading edge of a structural change in the international economy. What's more, it is water-cooler commuter man, with the full-time wife at home, who will one day be pored over in cultural museums as a relic from life in the 20th century.

Gaby Hinsliff is perfectly placed to capture the lineaments of this emerging revolution. Formerly the political editor of the Observer, she was forced to resign her full-time job after having her son and quickly discovered, as have so many other professional women before her, the rich benefits of a different kind of working, more malleable and home-based. It changed her husband's ideas about work, too. Indeed, the chief pragmatic premise underpinning Hinsliff's argument is that more men would move away from a conventional life of working nine-to-five if they could.

The internet provides the vital technological means to make possible more dispersed working patterns, but human beings still stand stubbornly in the way of reform. One of the biggest obstacles to reform is men's reluctance to take on their share of both the dreariness and the fun of domestic life. The book's title, Half a Wife, refers to every family's need for private time to service its more public, working face. In professional families, a great deal of domestic work can be outsourced, usually to lower-paid women. This is much harder when it comes to the multiple personal tasks of family life, such as staying in for the plumber, remembering family birthdays, helping out with children's homework, and so on.

Hinsliff writes interestingly about the way that, within most same-sex relationships, the familiar power struggles over what was once called housework simply do not arise, suggesting that the battle for "domestic democracy" is still to be fought by our daughters - the heterosexual ones, at any rate.

No radical feminist, Hinsliff takes a conciliatory approach, stressing the emotional benefits to men and their families if only they could escape the shackles of desk-bound presenteeism. She is equally understanding of men's terror at the loss of status and income they observe in the lives of those women who opt for the "mummy track". Ways need to be found to coax men into the new caring and sharing employment landscape.

Similarly, she argues that it is no good expecting employers to make change purely on egalitarian grounds. They, too, need to be persuaded of the rational merits of experimentation which will allow them to hold on to a pool of female and new-parent talent and, at the same time, save money, especially in the present dire economic climate.

The second half of the book assembles a wealth of fascinating examples of initiatives bubbling up from governments and various forward-looking employers. There are novel terms for us all to master, including "compressed work" (as in five days concertinaed into four long days) and "annualised hours" - indicating a fixed number of hours per year, worked in a variety of patterns. Add to that Slivers of Time, the name of a company that matches hard-pressed working parents with "mini-jobs" that last only a few days, or even hours.

The employment revolution is still in its early stages, particularly in relation to working mothers, who need considerably more high-flying, flexible and part-time jobs to be made available. However, it is easily done, as shown by the husband-and-wife team of British diplomats who became the Foreign Office's first job-sharing ambassador or high commissioner, to Zambia, in 2008.

There is no reason why most top jobs cannot be divided in two, allowing men and women to spend more time with their young families yet still gain experience and maintain their income and professional status. Over ten years ago, I suggested that this might work in politics at the highest level, including a job-sharing prime minister. At the time, the notion seemed fantastical. Now, however, we are inching closer to just such a scenario. Fractious as the relationship between its constituent parties may now be, the coalition government and the role it has played in creating a kind of dual (if not two-speed) premiership show that the idea is perfectly plausible.

Melissa Benn's "School Wars: the Battle for Britain's Education" is published by Verso (£12.99). She is working on a book about what our daughters' lives will look like in the 21st century.