One of the fallacies of what I think of as corporate feminism is the notion that once women are in positions of leadership and power, they will make corporations more family-friendly. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes that it’s equally important for women to focus on tearing down internal barriers as it is for women to “get rid of the external barriers once we achieve leadership roles. We will march into our bosses offices and demand what we need … Or better yet we’ll become bosses and make sure all women have what they need.” I was reminded of this fallacy when I read Sunday’s front-page story in the New York Times: “Wall Street Mothers, Stay-Home Fathers.”
The basic premise of this article is that many of the most successful women on Wall Street have stay-at-home husbands, just as their male counterparts have stay-at-home wives, so that they can focus 100 percent on their jobs at all times. They have convinced their employees, and maybe themselves, that they don’t have any responsibilities beyond mergers and acquisitions. As one woman told co-writers Jodi Kantor and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, a potential employer was thrilled to hear her husband had a low-paying, flexible job, because that meant she’d never be pulled away from work for parenting.
Kantor and Silver-Greenberg are blunt: To succeed in finance, these women “must give in to its sometimes brutal terms, from 4:45 a.m. wake-ups onward through days of ceaseless competition.” And the only way they can do this, even with nannies or other child care help, is for their spouse to stay home. Of course it’s much easier on any family if one person is covering the homefront when the other one is so absorbed by work. But at least some of the stay-at-home dads Kantor and Silver-Greenberg spoke to expressed ambivalence about staying home or wished they could return to their careers. Good luck: Of women who leave their careers to raise children, 93 percent want to return to work. Only 40 percent of those women are able to find full-time employment. If these men do decide to return to the workforce, it likely won’t be easy.
And that’s the other thing. We live in a country that doesn’t have much of a safety net for anyone. So let’s say that these Wall Street/stay-at-home couples get divorced, or the wage-earning spouse dies or loses her job. The partner who has given up work, is, in a word, screwed. (There are many cautionary tales written by women who “opted out,” got divorced, and were financially devastated.) I don’t think that’s a good position to be in whether you’re a man or a woman.
So what’s the solution? I really don’t know. A push for family-life balance at the corporate level? That seems unlikely and is certainly not where our attention should be in our advocacy for better working conditions for families. And I definitely believe women can and should be ambitious in their careers, as ambitious as their male counterparts. But it somehow doesn’t feel like progress when women can only succeed at the highest levels because they’ve got a stay-at-home spouse. It just feels like the same old story with a gender twist.