'I'm Not Your Wife!' A New Study Points to a Hidden Form of Sexism

Men may be subconsciously looking at women through the lenses of their own marriages.

male ring- body.jpgadactio/Flickr

On a flight years ago from Washington, D.C., to South Carolina to cover the 2000 presidential primary, a clean-cut gentleman with a suit but no tie interrupted my reading of the New York Times to ask a question.

"Are you reading that paper?" he asked, as I sat fully engrossed in some or another A-section story.

I paused and put down my Times. "Yes, I am," I answered slowly. "Why? Did you want part of a section?"

"Oh, no," he said in a tone of good-natured curiosity. "It's just that my wife only reads our paper for the furniture advertisements."

I relegated this story to a file of entertaining tales that women trot out occasionally amongst themselves to illustrate the ongoing battle of professional perception. Another standout moment came at a Harvard Business School scholarship dinner after I thanked a distinguished alumnus for supporting academic achievement and he answered by asking me how old I was. When I told him 32, he leaned over and generously advised, "Well, you better hurry up and get married because you don't have much time left."

But a research paper titled "Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace" recently made me revisit my pile of anecdotes.

Don't be fooled by the bland title: The paper's findings are a social Molotov cocktail wrapped in academic brown paper. Most notably, the three researchers (who hold positions at Harvard, NYU, and the University of Utah) found after a series of four studies that "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."

(I myself wondered about those definitions. For the record, the researchers label "modern marriages" those where wives are employed full time and "traditional marriages" those in which wives are not employed.)

The authors arrived at these startling findings by examining the issue of "stalled progress toward gender equality" - or the fact that while women account for a growing number of advanced degrees and share of the labor force, they remain an endangered species at the ladder's highest levels: Among other notable numbers, women are fewer than five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, occupy barely 15 percent of board seats of the Fortune 500, and make up not even 20 percent of Congress.

The researchers asked whether this lack of progress might in part be caused by "a pocket of resistance to the revolution," namely "husbands embedded in marriages that structurally mirror the 1950s ideal American family portrayed in the 'Adventures of Ozzzie and Harriet' sitcom.'" They write that a 2008 paper spurred them to wonder "'whether a domestic traditionalist can also be an organizational egalitarian?' The answer we posit is 'no.'"

Wow.

In other words, the paper's three authors say, when it comes to shaping views on women and work, there's no place like home:

"We found that employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion."

The studies showed that personal views and the domestic architecture of male leaders' private lives helped shape women's professional opportunities. This held true in both surveys and lab experiments, including one that tested whether candidates with identical backgrounds, but different names -- Drew versus Diane -- should receive a spot in a sought-after, company-sponsored MBA program. According to the research, men in traditional marriages gave Diane "significantly poor evaluations" compared to Drew. It seems that husbands with wives working at home imprinted that ideal onto women in the office.

One of the paper's authors, Harvard research fellow and UNC Assistant Professor Sreedhari Desai, said in a telephone interview that she does not want to reignite the well-trod tinderbox known as the "mommy wars." Instead, she hopes that the work will help leaders think about the best way to form teams and consider what invisible barriers might be holding back some of their top talent.

Presented by

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is contributing editor-at-large for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy program. Her most recent book is The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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