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Is your choice to stay at home hurting my career?

I hate the term Mummy Wars – I hate the idea that we can’t just be supportive of our decisions and move on.  I hate the idea that we are supposed to be on different sides rather than all doing our best as parents.  Life is too short etc etc


Unfortunately recent research by MIT, Harvard and UNC entitled “Marriage Structure And The Gender Revolution In The Workplace” (ignore the not exactly terribly snappy title and stay with me) has come out with the following, rather alarming, conclusions:

[The study] 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.


Because when they say ‘traditional’ they mean one male breadwinner and a stay at home wife/mother and when they say ‘modern’ they mean the two careers, two parents lifestyle.


And just to be clear – the research doesn’t have anything pejorative to say about the decision to stay at home or to work but rather looks at the unwitting consequences of one of those choices.


Those consequences are when given one of two identical CVs for a highly qualified candidate with either ‘Dave’ or ‘Diane’ at the top, among men whose wives did not work, Diane’s prospects of career progression plummeted.  The pool of talent available had been halved thanks to a set of subconscious biases.


It turns out that working mothers who have struggled with their male bosses telling them how their wives are so busy raising their children, how being at home is a full time job and how their wives just can’t find enough hours in the day can at least relax confident that it wasn’t just paranoia giving them that feeling that all the cards are stacked against them.


I’m not for a moment suggesting that it is wrong for some women to choose to stay at home and neither is Desai. “It’s unnerving that someone’s personal choices should affect others’ professional opportunities,” she says.  “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”.


That is the worst bit – that there is nothing I can do to change the fact that every other man in this office has chosen to live a lifestyle that means he unwittingly and unconsciously failing to see me as succeeding as a wife, a mother or in my career.  In his head he is probably viewing me as someone who probably really, deep down, wants to be at home with my children and who doesn’t really want to the cut and thrust of the business life.


There may be a degree of self selection, these chaps may be deliberately choosing women that ‘fit’ into their perception of a good wife and a working wife doesn’t fit into that box.  But no matter how liberal those men think they are, those little comments about ‘oh my wife says looking after our children is a full time job’ betray that actually they aren’t really seeing me or my female peers on a level playing field with the men.


I’m not saying that happy housewives should give up their lifestyle choice, don a suit and head back to the workplace to help me avoid these pitfalls in my career – but perhaps we need to think hard about what we can do to create households that are more equal irrespective of who is working and who is not. 

Perhaps we need to move away from traditional gender roles at home and start to show our children that there are a range of versions of male and female roles and that they can be interchangeable.

The awful thing is that if we don’t do something the next generation are going to find themselves in exactly the same demotivating, demoralising, unfair place and I don’t want my daughters to have to go through that.

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7 comments to Is your choice to stay at home hurting my career?

  • Julie

    Fascinating post, and the research certainly makes sense from the point of view of some of my own anecdotal examples (previous boss basically telling me my “priorities were obviously elsewhere” – whilst I never thought it was malicious on his part, merely ignorant, it does make me wonder…)
    Time to change to a less male-dominated industry, I wonder?

    • But I don’t want to change industry because deep down I know I am good at this job and I am at least as good as my male peers if only they would accept that I want this and not what their wives want

  • Kirsty

    That sounds a really interesting piece of research – I can only see the abstract from your link but I’ll have a look at the full paper at work. I’d guess that the ‘self-selection’ might be a stronger element than you’d think, especially given that it’s an American study – maybe some of there sample was from areas where ‘traditional’ values are more deeply entrenched. Also, you could read it as a positive outcome – we know that women are increasingly returning to work after having kids as a long-term trend, so assuming this trend continues, more men will find themselves in ‘modern’ marriages and their attitudes might change as a consequence (although I think more women are working part time too, so interesting to see how this affects men’s perception).

    Personally I have a thoroughly ‘modern’ marriage, with me working full time and my husband doing full time parenting of two preschoolers (and occasional freelance work).

    Actually, I think there might be some unconscious bias in the researcher’s own interpretation of the results. Why is it “But the choice one woman makes [to stay home] can affect countless women.”? Why not the choice of the man to choose full time work as the automatic default position, and therefore force the decision of childrearing or paying for childcare on to his wife? If more men made different decisions in this regard, it would open up opportunities for women.

  • I get frustrated trying to live on one income (currently husband’s) in a society that has become increasingly dual income. We have chosen for one of us to be the primary carer for our child (so at home or working only evenings, etc.). What frustrates me though is that the ‘at home’ job doesn’t have to be the mother. Husband and I spent last year with reversed roles and it was great for both of us as well as colleagues from the job he was leaving and the one I joined. Would unemployment and living costs drop if only one parent was in full time work? If so, we could all live on one income more easily and be there for our children. What we should be challenging is the thinking that it has to be the mother at home. That has to come from the mothers as much as anything.

  • What an excellent post, I definitely agree with you that something needs to be done about getting rid of gender biases in the work place for good!

  • I think part of the problem is that women see it as a choice between being a working mum or a stay at home mum. Men, for the most part, don’t see themselves as having choices, the default is career/breadwinner. This situation in itself is not equal. As a consequence, men just continue working, and don’t have the headache of making a choice, while as a mum I continuously struggle with enjoying work, having skills, being good at my work and wanting to be there for my kids too. I would think that if men had real choices, maybe expectations and subconscious attitudes would change.

    I have also found that there is a glass ceiling for women who don’t work full time. My career has stalled since I had my kids. My mnale and female peers, some less educated than me, childless (if female), have overtaken me and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s very frustrating.

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