Maybe we should stop denying it: Women can really sabotage other women's careers. And I'm not even talking about women who compete against each other at work. No, I'm talking about the hidden power behind the throne: the boss's wife.
According to a new study about the attitudes of married men in the workforce, the marriage structure of men can influence women's advancement at the office. It also offers an explanation as to why women seem stuck in the middle ranks.
According to joint research by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Harvard University, New York University, and the University of Utah, married men with stay-at-home wives or wives who work part-time tend to have more negative attitudes about working women. Lauren Stiller Rikleen, an expert on women in the legal profession, summarizes the findings in the Harvard Business Review blog. She writes that men with traditional marriages tend to
(1) have an unfavorable view about women in the workplace;
(2) think workplaces run less smoothly with more women;
(3) view workplaces with female leaders as less desirable; and
(4) consider female candidates for promotion to be less qualified than comparable male colleagues.
In a way, it's an extension of the mommy wars—except that this one is channeled through the male boss.
"These biases are understandable," writes Rikleen. "It's natural to seek validation for the choices, and particularly the sacrifices, you have made." In other words, the traditionalists feel their values—namely, the primacy they place on having a mother who stays home—are undermined when women (especially if they also have children) are trying to climb the corporate ladder.
But another reason, which Rikleen doesn't go into, might be that the wives are also jealous of the women who work with their husbands. As I reported earlier this year, men are often uncomfortable about sharing a meal with a female colleague because of the sexual innuendo involved. And let's admit it: If you're the woman stirring the pots at the hearth, would you want some young female associate hanging around your hubby?
So what's the solution to this fine mess? Rikleen proposes that organizations need to be alerted about how this unconscious bias works:
We need better training so everyone understands how their own experiences might affect their perceptions about their colleagues' fitness for leadership. Increased awareness is the first step on the path to change.
I'd like to believe that it's a matter of unconscious bias—but I'm not totally convinced. If the boss has a traditional marriage arrangement—and thinks that's the way it should be—is his mind really going to change? Personally, I think you need more than a consciousness-raising session.
Related post: "The Boss's Daughter".
Get the latest from The Careerist—free! Sign up today--see box on upper right corner.
Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.