By Meghan Casserly
Does your boss have a stay-at-home wife?It's time for your annual review and you couldn't be more ready. You've had a killer year, hit all of your targets and when the day comes you deliver a can't-lose presentation on why you deserve that VP role more than Dave three cubicles down. So when your boss gives you the news that you'll be staying put while Dave gets the promotion to the corner office, you're shocked.
"He's a sexist pig," your friends say at drinks later. "Of course he gave the job to a man." And they may be right. But new research from Harvard, NYU and the University of Utah adds another layer to the debate over gender discrimination at work, and another (possibly just as important) person to blame: your boss's stay-at-home wife.
In the paper "Marriage Structure And The Gender Revolution In The Workplace," researchers illustrate how employed men with stay-at-home wives tend to "exhibit attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that undermine the role of women in the workplace." Among other things, they have a negative view of the very presence of women in the office, large percentages of female employees and female leaders. But the most troubling finding was that men whose wives don't work "deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotions."
Sreedhari Desai, the lead author of the study and a scholar at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC, was inspired by her uncles in India and their views of women in the workplace. "They would complain about their female colleagues all the time," she says, noting the traditional Indian culture in which women are most often subservient to their husbands and rarely join the workforce. But one uncle stood out in his positive views on working women. "He was no champion of women, but definitely was not putting them down like the others," Desai says, and to her knowledge there could only be one reason why. Of all of the men, he was the only one whose wife worked. "I wondered then whether having a working wife would make men think of women differently."
The results of her findings are very clear: whether a man's wife works or not has a clear transference to his views of his female colleagues and the advancement of female subordinates. But what's worse, as research shows that employed men with stay-at-home wives tend to represent the upper echelons of organizations and, concurrently, occupy the most powerful positions, whether their wives go to work each morning or head off to yoga class has far-reaching implications on women in the workplace in a much broader sense.
Which, unfortunately, puts a spotlight on those yoga-mat-toting housewives. "It's unnerving that someone's personal choices should affect others' professional opportunities," says Desai of her findings and the decision to opt-in or out of the workforce. "I don't think that one choice is superior to the other. But the choice one woman makes [to stay home] can affect countless women. Her husband may have colleagues who are women, he may have subordinates." By hanging laundry midday is she hanging other women out to dry?
It is absolutely unfair to blame stay at home wives and mothers for the plight of professional women. But knowing that doesn't make the findings untrue. Desai tells me she wants to stay out of the "mommy-wars," and I don't blame her. To that end, she says she and her colleagues were careful to control for whether the subject (the employed, married man) was raised by a mother who worked or stayed at home. "I really thought that a man who was raised by a working women would be more tolerant or encouraging of working women regardless of the status of his own relationship," she says. "That that wasn't the case was a real surprise."
An illustration below shows the correlation between marriage structure ("traditional," ie "stay-at-home" or "modern," ie "working") and the likelihood of advancing both a male or female candidate into a prestigious MBA program. Male managers were given one of two identical resumes-that of a highly qualified, well-educated candidate-with either the name "Dave" or "Diane" on top. There's really no explanation necessary. Among men whose wives did not work, Diane's likelihood of advancing went out the window.
But the most maddening thing about this new research (which has been given great write-ups on The Atlantic and Jezebel among others) isn't that men who prefer their wives stay home transfer those feelings onto their female colleagues. It isn't even the uncomfortable blame game of side-eyeing every stay-at-home-mom we see. It's really the soul-crushing reality that there isn't anything concrete we can do about it.
Combating how the benevolently sexist attitudes of men towards their wives is a massive roadblock to women in the workplace isn't possible unless all women simply choose to work full time, something the paper's authors concede is an "exceedingly improbable event." Instead, we could make sweeping statements about the need for diversity regulations on the corporate level, or how organizations should become more flexible for mothers to lessen drop-out rates, but we know that song and dance by heart.
But the tiny corner of a silver lining in Desai's research begins to show through when we consider the next generation of mothers and sons. Desai, the mother of a six-week-old son who attends daycare while both she and her husband work has plans to set a very specific example for him at home. "Based on the body of this research I feel it's so important that my son understand not only that mommy and daddy both work but that when we're at home he sees an even split on domestic roles."
And here's a word for stay-at-home moms:. "I know I'm putting a lot of the burden on women when I say this," says Desai, "But maybe if the stay at home mothers can show her children that she can participate in the so-called masculine domain of family finances, for example, while ensuring they see her husband sharing the feminine domestic chores, there might be hope."
Of course, her prescription comes with no statistical evidence that this kind of behavior on the home-front will mean positive change, she says. "But I do like to use the word hope."
More on Forbes.com
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By Meghan Casserly