Two women sit side by side with their computers.

Surprise! The business world is a bit more challenging for women than it is for men.

All right, that’s not such a surprise.

Barriers to women in business include everything from pay gaps and advancement limitations to sexual harassment and issues with maternity leave. Women around the world are fighting to break through (or “lean into”) these challenges and end the boys-will-be-boys status quo, whether it’s on their own or as part of massive global movements like #MeToo.

And women are making headway…but when it comes to business, how much energy should really be spent on fitting into the existing corporate world? In this time of change, can women herald a transformation of how businesses are conceptualized, started, and run?

In their book Work Wife: The Power of Female Friendship to Drive Successful Businesses, Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur, founders of the online fashion venue Of a Kind, take on this question from the perspective of female partnerships—that is, work wives.

The term “work wife” emerged decades ago to reference (female) secretaries who served their (male) bosses especially well. Cerulo and Mazur reappropriate the term to refer to business partnerships between women. The book cites anecdotes and interviews with work wife pairs in an array of industries: fashion, film, sports, law, venture capital…even a marijuana dispensary.

However, the point is not that women can come together to be successful in any field. (We already know that.) The point is that the innovative relationship dynamic of work wives brings new solutions to old problems.

“When women partner together in the workplace…progressive shifts happen naturally,” say Cerulo and Mazur.

Dismantling Male Dominance for Feminist Disruption

Traditional corporate culture promotes a dog-eat-dog atmosphere in which coworkers see each other as rivals. In the past few decades, however, more and more businesses are realizing huge shifts in teamwork and leadership philosophy that signal an openness to a more feminine approach.

“Slow but steady progress toward dismantling male dominance at the office,” say Cerulo and Mazur, “has carved out space for women to collaborate instead of compete professionally, and that’s set the stage for change.”

According to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, women have a stronger tendency toward cooperation than men. This seems to be particularly clear in entrepreneurial environments. In fact, among the many aspects of forming a healthy partnership, Work Wife highlights how to balance responsibilities to support each individual’s “superpowers.”

That is to say, the new business reality built by work wife collaboration isn’t about making everyone the same. It’s about supporting individual strengths toward a common goal—on a professional and emotional level.

“Committing to each other as business partners who are also friends introduces a whole new level of accountability to everyday actions,” say Cerulo and Mazur.

Embracing the Work-Wife Balance

In this age of digitization, future business leaders—male and female—are already shifting their focus not just to online alternatives, but to new career philosophies. What’s more, the divide between work and private life is shrinking fast. As Cerulo and Mazur put it, “There are fewer and fewer jobs in the world that allow for a clear delineation between work and life.”

How many of us go to lunch and talk about a presentation or new office policy? Or answer work emails from home—even from vacation?

Avoiding burnout as the lines blur will call for innovation, and work wives are demonstrating that this is possible.

“The mix of openness, support, and shared grunt work that’s required in [work wife] partnerships…creates a safe-space environment for professional—and personal—growth,” say Cerulo and Mazur. “It’s an approach that upends so many of the closed-off, competitive, and every-man-for-himself beliefs and characteristics that have driven corporate culture for so long—and that’s part of what makes it so great.”

Cerulo and Mazur spend very little time recounting the story of their own business (which collected a respectable following as a startup, was bought out by Bed, Bath, & Beyond in 2015, and closed October 2019). Instead, Work Wife shines as a practical study in how women can find their perfect business partner not just to realize their own career goals, but to impact the greater business world.

As Cerulo and Mazur put it, “This book…is advocating for a reimagining of work.”

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