The Atlantic: ‘I’m Not Your Wife!’ A New Study Points to a Hidden Form of Sexism

June 5, 2012

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

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.'”


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.

“One of the reasons why there aren’t as many women at the top is perhaps men at the top tend to be benevolent sexists who tend to see women as people who should be shielded from danger and risks,” says Desai. “They are probably thinking of women as fragile beings who need to be taken care of, that want to stay at home and raise kids and don’t want to take risks and move to the top.”

Desai notes that so many of the attitudes her work unveils are of an “unconscious nature,” which makes beating them back particularly difficult. She says male leaders may think they are elevating women, not stifling them.

“You think of women in a very positive light, you tend to put them on a pedestal — you don’t think you are discriminating against them, you just think you are protecting them,” she says of male leaders who may make up that “pocket of resistance” she and her colleagues studied. “Without realizing it you are preferring men over women when it comes to choice positions.”

While the study focused on business, presidential politics, too, has faced some questions of “benign sexism.” Candidates this campaign cycle have talked a whole lot about women in a feverish effort to secure their support. Along the way, some women have questioned whether all the well-meaning politicking is indeed veering toward a soppier swamp of condescension regarding the “second sex.”

In April Mitt Romney told a gathering of newspaper reporters that his wife Ann “reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy,” leading the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus to remind the candidate that “women aren’t a foreign country. You don’t need an interpreter to talk to them.” (The cable cyclone surrounding whether Mrs. Romney had ever “worked a day in her life” also resulted from the cloud pressure of those comments.)

President Barack Obama, on the other hand, has tried to leverage Michelle’s career success to show voters that he gets the pressures facing working women. At the White House Forum on the Economy in April, he remarked that “once Michelle and I had our girls, she gave it her all to balance raising a family and pursuing a career. … And I know when she was with the girls she’d feel guilty that she wasn’t giving enough time to her work, and when she was at work, she was feeling guilty she wasn’t giving enough time for the girls.”

But this kind of overt display of public sympathy offers its own problems: A few weeks back journalist Campbell Brown rapped Obama for “trying too hard” to woo women voters and “employing a tone that can come across as grating” and “too paternalistic for my taste.” She urged him to stay focused on the economy — an issue dear to men and women.

As the research shows, all most women seek is the opportunity to be judged as individuals, rather than viewed through the narrow lens of someone else’s marital kaleidoscope. Perhaps Desai and her colleagues will spark the conversation that reminds male leaders that though their wives may expertly run their homes, that does not mean that other women cannot succeed in the workplace by pursuing a different set of choices.

Of course, change comes only slowly. A few weeks back, after I gave a long talk at a university about Afghanistan, women’s gains, Pakistan, and the endgame for the U.S. in its longest-ever war, the gentleman who graciously moderated the conversation finished with a rhetorical flourish:

“Well, you have given us a lot to think about, particularly on women. And as Barack Obama says, ‘Always listen to your wife!'”