Female Executives Need Stay-At-Home Wives

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Female executives are more likely to shy away from having children than men and, when they do have kids, feel more guilty about missing time with them to be at work, according to a recent report. The difference may be in having a spouse at home to help balance the equation between work and family.

As Jessica Grose describes at Slate, researchers at Harvard Business School analyzed interviews with nearly 4,000 worldwide executives between 2008 and 2013, 44 percent of whom were women. They found that while 60 percent of male executives had spouses who stayed home full time, just 10 percent of women did.

That may be part of why fewer of the women were married and had children. Nearly 90 percent of the male executives were married, compared to 70 percent of women. Men had an average of 2.22 children, but women’s average was 1.67. As Grose writes, “Women interviewed were more likely to say that they avoided marriage and children entirely because they don’t want to deal with the potential conflict.” One women describes that thinking this way: “Because I’m not a mother, I haven’t experienced the major driver of inequality: having children.”

These high-powered men also feel less guilt about missing time away from their families to be at work. They see their role as breadwinner and provider, while as one woman put it, “What is the most difficult thing…what I see my woman friends leave their careers for — is the real emotional guilt of not spending enough time with their children. The guilt of missing out.” By contrast, a man who divorced said, “Looking back, I would have still made a similar decision to focus on work, as I was able to provide for my family and become a leader in my area, and these things were important to me.” Both genders still think of this conflict between children and work as women’s problem to figure out. “Male executives admit they don’t prioritize their families enough, and they don’t seem too bothered by it,” Grose writes.

What’s happening at the top may not reflect how everyone feels: In a recent Pew research poll, half of working fathers said that it’s difficult for them to balance their work lives with their families lives, basically the same as working mothers, and 46 percent said they want to spend more time with their children.

But climbing to the top ranks is still a difficult slog for too many women. They make up less than 15 percent of the chief executives at large American companies, and their share hasn’t grown in four years. Part of the problem may be that they are much more likely to get pushed off course when the need to care for family members arises: being a caregiver makes them more likely to leave the labor force, while having no such impact on men, and nearly 30 percent of mothers have had to quit their job to care for someone, compared to 10 percent of fathers.

Better work/family policies could help both genders even out these imbalances. The lack of paid family leave is one reason why American women’s labor force participation isn’t keeping up with other developed countries. It’s also part of why over 15 percent of men don’t take any time off when they have a new child. But in California, one of the three states to offer both parents paid family leave, the share of new dads who take time off for a new child has jumped 41 percent.