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Your Boss's Wife Might Be the Problem

Vivia Chen

May 21, 2012

2Women© Steve Debenport - istockphotoMaybe 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".

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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.


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This is complete B. S., if this was the case, department managers would hire fat old women instead,
in order to keep the peace in the work place. This is a cover up for age discrimination in general.

A partner once told me that I had been passed over to work on a large transaction in favor of a younger male associate, because the partner's wife did not want him traveling with me. But this was in 1985, and I was SO hoping that things had changed by now...

It is not only women who need to fear the "boss' wife." Heaven help you if your immediate boss or supervisor's wife becomes insecure at the idea that you might outshine and supplant her hubby. She will see to it that you are fired (by poisoning her husband against you or by playing to his own similar insecurities -- Remember, the Peter Principle is Newton's Law of the Workforce) to protect her husband's (her) turf. It happened to me.

Stay home, little ladies. Your sole purpose in life is there, keeping the household clean and in order for the men.

Is the following meant to say women (not men):

"She writes that men with traditional marriages tend to"?

I recently lost my primary mentor at my "big law" firm because his wife kept accusing him of having an affair and investing time in "another woman." There was nothing about our friendship that would have seemed the slightest bit threatening if I had been male.

i do think women in and out of the workplace passively attempt to undermine the women by whom they feel threatened. the wife might not openly say- "she sucks", but you know women, they make sneaky comments that men are too dense to realize are being made out of jealousy. yes, women are sneaky, men are simple minded... a result of the era when men ruled by brute force (have we left that era?). but, what i'd be curious to know is the age of these people who supposedly are discriminating (who isn't these days)---- b/c most people i know can't afford to have stay at home spouses. or maybe this is just a 'big firm' problem b/c those are the only salaries that can support a family without two income earners.

Vivia - you're right on with this study. I have a male Big Law partner friend whose wife quit her successful job to, as he says, "educate the children." I thought he meant they were homeschooled. He means that she drives them about so that he doesn't have to. And he never misses an opportunity to get his jabs in to me, as a working mom, about my "unsupervised" children. Not only that, but when I unexpectedly took a year off, my stay-at-home mom neighbors openly called me the world's worst stay-at-home mom because I preferred my violin lessons to school picnics. Have you ever seen the roster of homeroom "parents" at your kid's school? How many men are on those lists?

Relationships between male bosses and their wives very much influence the treatment of subordinate women in the work place. Years ago my then boss absolutely took out his anger for his soon-to-be ex-wife on me during their protracted and acrimonious divorce proceedings.

This happened to me. My boss' wife was extremely jealous and demanded that her husband (the partner) get rid of me. So he did. Believe me when I tell you that I just wasn't interested in him. Plus, he was old enough to be my dad. But my being young, single and reasonably attractive was far too much for the insecure wife to take (since he had married her for her money I suppose she ruled the roost).

Wives, trust us, we don't want him. He's not that great a prize.

Always "on point"...It's important to raise awareness and to allay fears (and keeping a nice size diamond on the left hand will support and assuage fears..). We must protect our licenses and our reputations in the workplace. (and as my college roomate and I were discussing recently...keep a happy home and your workplace will realize where your priorities are.)

What's that's saying about "lies, damn lies and statistics"? The post seems disjointedly about three different subjects, all of which might be valid by themselves but none of which have anything to do with one another. And tossing in some scientific study only appears to give it an appearance of undeniable truth. But since the post seems rambling, here is another random opinion and I bet I can find some data to support it. This post reminds me of what, in my experience is one big ridiculous myth -- that men resent their girlfriend or wife if that person makes more money. That is total bovine defecation! Me and all my working male friends would love nothing more than a "sugar momma." Pay my bills, please!! We wonder who these guys are who supposedly resent their women making more money. Resenting one's wife or girlfriend because she has a nicer job and a bigger bank account is about as likely as resenting one's wife or girlfriend because she has thicker lips, a slimer waistline and bigger boobs. It just doesn't happen, I'm telling you.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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