Why your boss's marriage matters

What happens at home doesn't stay at home
photo courtesy flickr user INTVGene

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Women entered the workforce in droves in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, 40 years later, women are still under-represented in leadership roles. People gnash their teeth about why this might be (witness the furor over Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent article in The Atlantic) but few deny it is the case. Now some research has revealed a fascinating factor that might be holding women back: Men in traditional marriages are less likely to promote women.

A study led by Sreedhari D. Desai (of UNC-Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School) examined the attitudes of over 700 married men. By sorting these men into marriage categories of "traditional" (wife stays home), "neo-traditional" (wife works part-time) and more modern (wife works full-time), the researchers found that men in the first two categories were more likely to hold beliefs that were harmful to women in the workplace than those in the latter camp. They were more likely to view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably. They were less likely to view organizations with women leaders as attractive. And they were more likely to deny qualified women the opportunity for promotions.

Part of this is probably pure correlation: Men who have traditional notions about women exhibit these beliefs at work and may be more likely to seek out partners who have traditional ideas about marriage. A woman who planned on a big, ambitious career probably would not be interested in such a man as a romantic partner.

But even if men don't wear their traditionalism on their sleeves, being in a more traditional marriage might change how a man operates in the workplace. If a supervisor has never had to stay home with a sick child, he might view that as a bad reason to take a day off -- a reason that will hurt someone's chances of promotion. Someone who sees no problem with scheduling a 5 p.m. meeting -- because he's never had to pick up a child at after-school care, and because he assumes his wife is investing so much time in the children's lives that if he misses dinner it's OK -- might view anyone who doesn't like 5 p.m. meetings as lazy. These attitudes obviously hurt men who want balanced lives, too. But women likely bear the brunt of the result.

Averages, of course, mean nothing about any individual man. There are no doubt many men in more traditional marriages who play an active role in encouraging women's careers. They act as sponsors and mentors and promote qualified women whenever they can. There are also likely men with employed wives who still don't give women a fair shake at the office.

But if your organization has a vision of an "up and comer" that looks like a man whose wife plays a supporting role to his career, know that this vision may also conflict with organizational goals to diversify the leadership. Your boss's marriage might matter in terms of what your upward trajectory might be.