Behind many a successful man is a woman who manages his family and home life--an arrangement that men rarely appear to reciprocate, even today.
A new study of 160,000 doctoral recipients spotlights the telling difference between men and women in academia: Of the married men tenured in science or social science, more than half had stay-at-home spouses, compared with 9% of the married tenured women in those disciplines.
In a parallel study, Princeton found that none of the married women teaching similar subjects had a husband who didn't work. And though 52% of the men had spouses who worked part time, just 15% of the female faculty did.
Anyone who helps run a household-- from buying groceries and doing the laundry to paying the bills -- knows what this means. Many of the men on elite university faculties (and in many other professions) have someone to take care of them, as well as their kids, aging parents, pets and everything else. The women don't. Yet women employed in high-powered jobs have to compete with men who have more time for their research, travel, clients, patients or customers.
In light of this gender difference, it's easy to see why the new study of the doctoral recipients found that more than three-quarters of men in academia who had children within five years of earning their doctoral degree got tenure, compared with about half of the women five years out.
But the data are instructive for another reason as well: They help explain why some women leave their high-profile jobs. Recent examples include Karen Hughes, President Bush's former communications chief, and Brenda C. Barnes, who used to be the president and chief executive of Pepsi-Cola, North America.
Across the country, women associates leave law firms more often than men do. In Massachusetts, women are 28% of the lawyers in the state's largest firms. Yet 40% of the lawyers who leave these firms each year are women.
When women exit from paid jobs and take on nearly all the work of the household, they reinforce the status quo. In one-worker, two-parent families, the worker is usually the man. Because of the support his wife gives him at home, he's more likely to succeed. And because he doesn't have to race from meetings to carpools, he is less likely to demand that the workplace bend to his family's needs.
Without pressure to change, workplaces don't. Which in turn makes it even harder for professional women with children to keep up. Generally speaking, they're still expending more than their share of effort to keep their households running--what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has long called "the second shift."
For all of these reasons, men can play a make-or-break role in their wives' careers. Some employers understand this. The chief of internal medicine at a major university recently told a group of medical students that when she had to decide whom to hire, she sought to interview the husbands of female candidates with children. In her view, mothers can perform well as medical school professors only if their husbands are up to the challenge of juggling household and office responsibilities.
This is an old lesson that feminists had hoped to have taught decades ago. Yet for many women, as well as men, it remains out of reach. The goal within reach is a world in which parents of both sexes mix work and family responsibilities; the reality is a world that's often split between a well-educated male wage earner and an equally well-educated female caregiver.
Employers have a critical role to play in making it easier for more parents to balance work and home, to be sure. But so do the husbands or partners with whom women live. Being a working parent can be tiring, demanding and sometimes exasperating. Still, with shared responsibilities at home and understanding at the office, it's also enormously gratifying. For men and women both.