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Opinion | Joanna Weiss

Marriage, managers, ‘mommy wars’

What if some companies are unfriendly to women, because they’re run by men with stay-at-home wives?

WHEN WE think about stay-at-home motherhood, it’s often in the context of the “mommy wars,’’ the overhyped state of judgmentalism that inspires guilt, attachment-parenting manifestos, suspicious glances on playgrounds, and cathartic chick lit.

What we don’t hear, so much, is the husbands’ point of view — maybe because it isn’t always pretty. A new research paper posits a controversial, husband-centric explanation for why women are so underrepresented on corporate boards and in executive suites: What if some companies are unfriendly to women because they’re run with men with stay-at-home wives?

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The paper, published on the Social Science Research Network, was co-written by Sreedhari Desai, who studies organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina and has a knack for finding places where corporate behavior collides with the social zeitgeist. In the past, Desai has examined the effects of toys in office suites, and the way high salaries can lead CEOs to dehumanize their employees.

In this case, Desai and her colleagues, Dolly Chugh of New York University and Arthur P. Brief of the University of Utah, began by examining data from a national survey conducted in 1996. It asked married men whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “wife should help husband’s career first’’ and “if a mother chooses to work, it doesn’t hurt the child.’’

Controlling for age, education, income, and the work status and education of the men’s mothers, the data found that men in “traditional’’ marriages — in which the husbands worked and the women did not — were more likely to look askance on working women. The researchers analyzed similar data from two 2002 surveys, and found that men with stay-at-home wives were more likely to report that their workplace was running less smoothly if it had a high percentage of women.

Next came the lab experiments. Researchers asked more than 200 married male managers, studying at a large university in the western United States, to evaluate a recruitment letter from a fictional company. Some participants saw a letter filled with male recruiters’ names. The others saw a letter stocked with female recruiters, which also noted that the company was committed to women’s advancement. Men in traditional marriages were less likely to say they wanted to work for the women-friendly company.

In another experiment, participants were asked to evaluate a hypothetical candidate for an MBA program. They were given identical resumes, some with the name David Blake and others with the name Diane Blake. Men in traditional marriages gave poorer evaluations to the woman.

Men in ‘traditional’ marriages — in which the husbands worked and the women did not — were more likely to look askance on working women.

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Together, the paper says, the data might reveal “a pocket of resistance to the gender revolution’’ — and add a new wrinkle to the not-quite-satisfying conventional wisdom that women opt out of the workforce on their own.

It’s certainly easy, on a case-by-case basis, to find exceptions; yes, there are female CEOs, and while Mitt Romney had a stay-at-home wife, he’s also had high-level female staffers. The researchers also bend over backwards to point out that this might not be overt misogyny, but rather a matter of subconscious bias.

On the other hand, many believe subconscious attitudes are powerful. Desai points to Project Implicit, a research project from Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington, which offers word-association tests that gauge biases on a range of subjects, from gender to race to age. (You can take the tests yourself at implicit.harvard.edu, though the website loudly warns that you might not like the results.)

At any rate, the paper is food for thought — another possible explanation for why so few companies are truly family-friendly, with on-site day care or widely-used flexible schedules.

It’s also a reminder that the “mommy wars,’’ with their emphasis on free will, are overblown. According to Census data, in 2010, only 23 percent of families with married parents and children under 15 had stay-at-home moms.

After all, staying home often requires a prerequisite: a husband who makes big bucks in the corporate world.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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