Women teaming up as work wives are transforming the nature of work

Mutualism at its finest.
Mutualism at its finest.
Image: AP/Invision/John Shearer
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I am not married, but I do have a work wife. Neither of us ever proposed. As with so many great romances, things just unfolded naturally. One minute Meredith and I were proofreading each other’s work, the next we were riffing on one another’s jokes, swapping stories about our childhoods, and live-blogging our work days to one another over Slack.

From the outside, we might seem like an odd couple. Meredith is a proud advocate for the benefits of being grumpy at work, while I might easily be mistaken for a singing-telegram delivery person. And yet, over the course of several years, we’ve formed a true partnership—one that’s opened my eyes to the creative possibilities that emerge when women channel their emotional and professional energy toward one another in the workplace.

When we talk about emotional labor these days, we typically think of it in terms of the unfair expectation that women will expend inordinate amounts of time and mental energy supporting others, both at work and at home, while receiving little in the way of support themselves. Historically, the fact that women get drafted into serving as part-time therapists, career coaches, and party planners for their workplaces has served to advance men’s careers. Not only does the unequal division of labor free men up to focus on performing the tasks that will actually win them raises and promotions, men also directly benefit from women’s support work.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being an empathetic, resourceful person who bounces around ideas with colleagues, offers them advice, and takes them out for coffee when they’re having a bad day. The problems only arise when women give disproportionately and get nothing in return.

It is here that the rise of work wives may have truly revolutionary potential.

In their new book Work Wife: The Power of Female Friendship to Drive Successful Businesses, Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur, co-founders of the limited-edition fashion design site Of a Kind, suggest that the recent visibility of female work duos—“Oprah and Gayle, Abbi and Ilana, Kathie Lee and Hoda, and Tina and Amy”—heralds a new chapter in the push for gender equality. With women increasingly liberated from the idea that they need to compete with one another in order to succeed, there is space for women colleagues, in any industry, to forge collaborative, mutually beneficial relationships.

Among work wives, one woman’s ability to provide others with invaluable emotional and professional support is not a weakness or a trait to be exploited, but a quality that is met with equal support in kind.

What is a work wife?

I checked with Meredith, naturally, and she says there are three basic metrics you can use to identify your work spouse: “Who’s the first person you’re going to go to complain you’re tired, to complain you’re having an actual work problem, to ask if they want to get drinks after work?” she says. “If one person is hitting all those boxes, they’re a work wife.” In this formula, a work wife is a sympathetic ear, a trusted counsel, and someone whose company you enjoy to boot—and you reciprocate all of this for her. But work-wife relationships weren’t always this equitable.

As Cerulo and Mazur note, the concept of a work wife “dates back to the 1930s, when it was used by men to describe an especially high-functioning secretary.” A secretary-slash-office-wife provided both personal and professional support for her boss, remembering birthdays and anniversaries all while meticulously organizing his work schedule, handling his administrative work, and anticipating his every emotional and practical need.

In keeping with the uneven balance of household labor in real-life marriages, the office wife typically received little in the way of emotional support from her office husband. As Mad Men’s Don Draper tells Peggy Olson, his junior colleague and former secretary, when she complains that she receives neither credit nor gratitude for giving him her ideas: “That’s what the money is for!”

Historically, a good number of women have functioned as work wives in unequal marriages. Their generosity earns no returns because, as Rosenbury writes, their support work is framed as “natural and effortless, more akin to love than to work.” It’s a pretty sweet deal for the patriarchy. As Judy Brady writes in her seminal 1971 satirical essay “I Want a Wife,” laying out the myriad ways in which women are expected to anticipate and care for their husband’s needs while demanding nothing for themselves: “My god, who wouldn’t want a wife?”

Give and take

Giving relationships can exist in the workplace between people of any gender, of course. Think of the close-knit friendship between Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat, two early Google engineers (both men) who work together at the same keyboard, or the intimate, if reportedly rocky, partnership between Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, the latter of whom provided crucial support for Sandberg after her husband’s death.

But broadly speaking, both men and women tend seek emotional support from women. In the professional sphere, women have long been not just outnumbered by men but placed in roles in which they were implicitly or explicitly tasked with providing support to men. And so it’s been men—rather than other women—who reap the most benefits from women’s socialization as caretakers, whether in heterosexual marriage and in the faux marriages that exist at the office.

None of this is to say that women should try harder to avoid helping others. In his book Give and Take, organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant explains that being of service to others is an enormous source of motivation. What’s more, his research shows that giving is closely associated with success—provided that it’s reciprocated.

Grant says that successful givers take steps to ensure that their generosity isn’t exploited. But because many women have been socialized to prioritize others’ needs above their own, and because contemporary work culture has been shaped by men who have been raised to expect selflessness from women, women often find themselves in positions where they provide vast amounts of support without receiving recognition, compensation, or reciprocation. It’s no surprise that while Grant finds that while givers are often among the world’s most successful leaders, they’re often ranked among companies’ worst performers, too. “Givers spend a lot of time trying to help other people and improve the team,” Grant explains in a 2016 TED talk, “and then, unfortunately, they suffer along the way.”

This longstanding issue is what gives the rise of work wives such revolutionary potential. It’s clear that women benefit from forging professional bonds with one another: Gallup research shows that women who say they have a best friend at their jobs are more engaged with their work, more likely to take risks, more connected with their coworkers as a whole, and more likely to have positive experiences throughout their day, from receiving recognition for their work to making progress on projects. In other words, when women work together as equals, both their attitude and their performance change for the better—perhaps because they know they’ve got emotional backup whenever they need it.

How does the work-wife dynamic benefit individual women in practice? A panel discussion at New York Magazine’s “How I Get It Done” conference in Brooklyn this March offers one glimpse. Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, the creators and co-stars of the Hulu series Pen15, described the way that their mutually supportive relationship encourages them to stand up for themselves and one another at work.

“I feel like when we’re in a meeting, basically I feel more able to be vocal or strong about something when it’s in the context of something we’re doing,” Konkle told Erskine. “When it’s just me, I’m noticing that I’m more apt to apologize for something. It’s far easier to say, This is our point of view.” Core to their relationship, in other words, is what Rosenbury describes as a sense of interdependence. As self-identified work wives, Konkle and Erskine are aware that their success is contingent upon one another. To them, that’s not a drawback, but an added source of motivation.

A culture of collaboration

The possibilities raised by work wifedom go beyond individual benefits. In leading by example, Cerulo and Mazur suggest, pairs of work wives can also help bring about cultures that value cooperation over competition, an environment in which women are more likely to succeed. “Numerous studies suggest that this inclination is in line with how we’re socialized,” they write. “Men are brought up to be more competitive, independent, and unemotional, while women are raised to be more supportive, cooperative, and emotionally sensitive.”  While professional advice for women often suggests that they should attempt to change themselves to conform to standards set mainly by men, Cerulo and Mazur are more invested in the question of how work wives can transform office norms so that women can work the way they want to.

They cite the way women in the Obama-era White House teamed up to ensure their voices got heard in meetings, repeating one another’s points and naming the person who had originated the idea. “This simple behavioral change led to real progress,” Cerulo and Mazur write. “During the second term, there was gender parity among those with close proximity to POTUS.” In this and other ways, women’s partnerships with one another can usher in greater female representation across the board. “If you develop strong social networks of women, you’re starting to create a culture shift where women support women and maybe start to disrupt that male-dominated hierarchy,” Emma Seppala, author of the book The Happiness Track and faculty director of the Yale School of Management’s Women Leadership Program, tells CNN Money.

The rise of work wives could also usher in workplace cultures that make room for employees’ emotions and other displays of humanity. “In the traditional corporate culture created by men, there’s a strong separation between the personal and professional,” Mazur says. “You leave your personal life at home when you walk into the office.”

But in a mutually supportive relationship modeled by work wives, wherein women are openly invested in one another’s personal and professional lives, there’s no need for such pretense. After all, the idea that work and life are separate things—and that it’s ever truly possible to balance the two—is a harmful myth, and one that encourages women in particular to feel like guilt-ridden failures, forever falling behind in one area or another.

“Instead of trying to fight for this balance, which isn’t achievable,” Cerulo says, her partnership with Mazur has helped make Of a Kind a place where you can “bring more life to your work.” That means there’s no need to feel guilty when family responsibilities coincide with traditional work hours, and that it’s perfectly acceptable to tell colleagues that a stressful situation back home has got you rattled on a particular day. In a work culture shaped by work wives, Cerulo says, it’s okay to “be your authentic self at your job.”

Speaking personally, the freedom to be my authentic self at work has been one of the most unexpected benefits of becoming Meredith’s work wife. Because I know she’s got my back, I feel free to tell her when I’m struggling with a project or caught up in a frenzy of professional neurosis. (“You’re acting crazy,” she once told me darkly on a walk, which was the most reassuring thing she could have possibly said.) And because I trust her judgment, I believe her when she gives me a new perspective on a problem or simply tells me to stop worrying and chill.

In this respect and innumerable other ways, having a work wife has made me not just happier at my job, but better at it. I think it’s safe to say that Meredith feels the same way. Although to be fair, when I asked her, for the purely journalistic purposes of this story, to rate me as a work wife on a scale of 1 to 10, she just laughed and said, “That’s a silly question.” As with any healthy relationship, it’s important for work wives to know where to draw boundaries, too.

This story is part of How We’ll Win 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality. Read more stories here