The past few days, I have overheard friends comment that the spouse of a mutual friend isn’t in friend’s league. Admittedly, knocking a friend’s significant other is common enough cross-culturally, so inquiring minds might be wondering why I glommed to these moments of snark. Short answer: because I finally realized something about the social arrangements of family businesses. And yes, the social organization of these relationships seems universally neoliberal, even if (or because?) the evaluations of the roles that different spouses play varies in interesting (and gets read as) cultural difference.
Chinese power couples have an interesting division of social labor; one usually works human relationships and the other usually takes care of business. The prototypical example is a division between government and commercial work, with one member of the family earning benefits and security, while the other takes economic risks. Within business, the prototypical example is that of the husband being an executive and the wife being an accountant. Sometimes, the account-wife is actually a second wife, but the point is the same: in order to take care of business it is necessary to separate the tasks of counting/making money and working with people.
When both members of a couple are business partners, the division of labor is finer, and blurs hierarchical divisions. In real estate development, for example, one member of a dynamic duo will wine and dine with officials and village heads, while the other deals with plans and actual economic bargaining. Likewise, in the fashion industry, again I have seen power couple division of labor in terms of social relationships and the actual work of making profits. In business practice, this plays out as “good cop, bad cop” with the social relations partner massaging egos, and the business partner cutting costs, including wages and benefit packages.
Now the snark caught my attention because I have suddenly realized that friends have been giving a higher moral and/or cultural evaluation to the human relations member of the team, while the partner who does business is frequently denigrated as not being “good enough” for the other. I also realized that gender plays a part in the evaluation, but not necessarily in the execution of a role. I know of partnerships where the woman is the relationship person, and others where she plays the cut throat role. But in all cases, the relationships person, regardless of gender was given a higher moral evaluation, while the business person was considered 厉害, which means something like “able to get the job done” with all the moral ambiguity the phrase includes in English.
Nevertheless, gender does come into play when talking about how singles develop the trust and common vision because although “brothers (兄弟)” is a common metaphor for business relationships, “sisters (姐妹)” is less so. Moreover, the fact that “older brother-younger sister” relationships metaphorically figure the ideal romantic relationship, it becomes clear that outside of marriage a woman’s partnership with a man will be suspect. In other words, as long as business practices continue to use traditional family relationships of trust and common vision to create the cooperation necessary for corporate throat cutting, women will enter the economic arena at a disadvantage. And yes, the real question might be: why are we trying to get more women into the ring, when the point is to get men out?