Why the Boss' Wife Matters to You

boulderingThe higher you go, the harder it gets.

No, that's not what mountaineers attempting Everest claim. It's what my super-high-achieving female friends have told me about the corporate world. For these women, it doesn't get harder because of the workload, or the travel, or because they manage more people. It gets harder because the higher up in an organization they go, the more sexist the men around -- and above -- them become.

I didn't know what to make of this when I first heard it. It wasn't my experience, but these women have made it higher up the corporate ladder than I. Now a group of studies, put together by Professor Sreedhari Desai of UNC-Chapel Hill, not only confirms this phenomenon but shows why sexism actually gets worse as you advance.

In a nutshell -- a very weird nutshell -- it's all about the boss's wife. Here's how Desai put it: "Husbands embedded in traditional and neo-traditional marriages (relative to husbands embedded in modern ones) exhibit attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that undermine the role of women in the workplace." Desai defines a "modern" marriage to be one in which the wife works full-time outside the home. In "traditional" or "neo-traditional" marriages, the wife stays at home or works part-time.

How, exactly, do men in traditional marriages undermine women at work? If your boss has a full-time homemaker and corporate wife by his side, he's less likely to promote qualified female candidates, Desai found. He's less likely to feel positive about the presence of women in the workplace, and is less likely to think that organizations with a large number of high-level women are running smoothly. When it comes to his own career, a man with a stay-at-home wife is more likely to say that companies with lots of high-level women are unattractive places to work.

(There is no mention in the study of female bosses. But the sad fact is that once you reach the upper echelons of a company, your boss is more likely to be a guy).

Diane vs David

In one experiment, 232 male managers were asked to evaluate two resumes, each with stellar achievements, for a company-sponsored MBA program. One resume "belonged" to Diane and the other to David. That was the only salient difference between them. Men in traditional marriages overwhelmingly chose David for the company-sponsored MBA slot, while men whose wives had careers outside the home were about evenly split on whether Diane or David should get the nod.

If a guy is the breadwinner in his own household, it seems he's very likely to believe -- perhaps subconsciously -- that this particular arrangement is the way it should be. Desai describes these men as "a pocket of resistance to the gender revolution in the workplace."

And the higher up you go in an organization, the more likely it is that these men have stay-at-home wives. They need them, just the way Carly Fiorina's husband left his job the year before she became CEO of Hewlett-Packard. If you're putting in the hours, effort, and travel that it takes to get close to the C-suite, that doesn't leave much time for helping the kids with homework or hosting elaborate business dinners. For that, you need a wife, and the higher-ranking you are, the more likely you are to be making the kind of money that allows one spouse to stay at home.

Desai notes that these men, biased as they are, aren't consciously looking to hold women back. Ask them, and they'll probably say that while some married men may have outdated notions about marriage and work, they themselves are completely open-minded.

The obvious solution, of course, is for all married women everywhere to take on full-time jobs. That's not going to happen, and the way our society is currently structured, it would leave a lot of kids stranded at bus stops. But for those women working in a corporate environment, the science suggests that it's a good idea to find out what the boss' wife does for a living before saying yes or no to a job offer.

And if you're a married guy in management? Desai recommends taking an implicit association test, which is designed to reveal subconscious attitudes towards groups of people. Manager, know thyself -- and the awesome women around you. – Kimberly Weisul

If you liked this story, you might also like:

When Women Run the (Corporate) World

Having It All - Ha!

How To Negotiate Like A Woman -- And Win

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Image courtesy of flickr user Susanica

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