This is a tribute to the ‘wives in business’ who are largely unsung but who still can be heroes.
While it’s never easy for women in business to stand up and be counted, it’s even harder for those women who have gone into the family business with their spouses. Unlike women who go into business for themselves in areas they are confident and familiar with, for ‘wives in business’ often the reasons for going into the business relate more to child care and family unity than to success and recognition. However, this does not preclude them from becoming successful in their own right or as many would prefer, as a couple.
Doing the books
Research shows although many ‘wives’ come into a business with no prior knowledge of the product range or business systems, they are still expected to perform, and they do. Women tend to be the ones who will seek the knowledge needed to promote and grow the business and they are also the ones who will ensure the business is compliant with government regulations. This is particularly true of trades-based businesses with many of these growing from small “mum and pop” operations to medium to large businesses employing 100 or more people¹.
How on earth do they work together without wanting to commit bodily harm on each other you ask? The secret to a successful partnership between couples is segregation and boundaries, with each partner being autonomous in their own area. Speaking as someone who has worked with her husband I can attest to this.
Research carried out has also shown couples attempting the same roles in the work place were not successful. Couples who conducted completely different tasks were able to build boundaries and have different responsibilities.
A big issue for wives in business is isolation, especially if the business is home-based, but this can also happen if operating from commercial premises. As the nature of the work she does may mean she has less contact with the general public, the reaction from many women is to seek contact through business associations, training and women’s groups, all of whom work in part as mentors. This aspect is interesting as women seem more prepared to go outside the work place to seek interaction with their peers and will often engage in community oriented activities.
Contrasts between women in business and wives in business
Contrasting with ‘wives in business’ are women who are sole owners of a business. While successful in their own right, they tend to be involved in industries they are confident with and are often ‘female oriented’ in skills such as education, communication, accounting and secretarial. Comparing the two is interesting because there is no common theme for business choice for ‘wives in business.’ It is also rare to find these women in businesses they are familiar with prior to joining their spouse.
The type of industry they are in is often more ‘masculine oriented’ enterprises such as waste disposal, construction, aviation or automotive. It is the instigator of the business who chooses the type of business and then seeks support.
Exceptions also occur when the female partner starts a business and her husband later chooses to join, in those cases the business is often ‘female oriented’.
A masculine type of business is almost always perceived as belonging to the male while a female oriented business is perceived as belonging to the female. This can cause conflict as an assumption is almost always made as to who the correct owner is. In a masculine oriented venture the male partner is usually approached first for any decision making but to be fair he will usually advise his wife is the one to talk to depending on who in the business is responsible for the relevant area. The good news is over time both partners will be considered interchangeable and usually recognised for their area of expertise rather than gender.
While it can be difficult for all women to be recognised for their expertise, ‘wives in business’ face particular challenges in recognition. Often it is assumed they merely ‘do the books’, forgetting entirely that it takes several years at university to gain the skills to ‘do the books’ if you are an accountant.
Overall the roles these women play in business are not related to their visibility. They are the backbone of the business and should be recognised for the role they play and their importance in the decision-making process of the business.
About Christine Macauley
Christine Macauley is the Director of Robbo’s Motorcycles, a successful automotive and retail business for the Harley Davidson motorcycle franchise. Christine has been inducted into the Australian Businesswomen’s Network 2014 Hall of Fame because of her key role (alongside her husband) in establishing and growing Robbo’s Motorcycles into a thriving business.
1. Research taken from paper produced for Small Enterprise 20th Conference, Auckland 23 – 26 September, 2007 Christine Kris Macauley, “Talk to the Missus: Communicating to Small Trades Based Enterprises”