Working Parents in High-Powered Jobs—One Spouse Must Make Career Sacrifices

The concept of "specialization" in families is having a renaissance

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Female breadwinning is a reliably inflammatory topic. Earlier this year, when the Pew Research Center published a study showing that mothers are now the sole or primary earners in 40 percent of households with children, an all-male Fox News panel practically spontaneously combusted with anxiety, worrying that men are ceding their natural “dominant” place. On Sunday, the New York Times published a front-page piece about the rise in women bankers with stay-at-home husbands. This time, objections were raised by more progressive observers who argued that these women’s success is hardly to be celebrated; it just means they are giving in to a rotten corporate culture that requires insane work hours.

There is truth in that last objection, but it’s possible to see good news in the Times story. The figures themselves were striking. Since 1980, the number of mothers working in finance with stay-at-home husbands has risen nearly tenfold. These women are a small percentage of female bankers overall, but the magnitude of the rise is still important. I’d argue that the small but growing number of fathers staying home full-time (or the larger number of men assuming the role of secondary earner) is heartening, not because it’s right for everybody but because it shows that at-home help from men is now part of the suite of work-life solutions women can avail themselves of. If our goals are (1) to see more women leading companies, banks, universities, and other major institutions, not to mention countries, and (2) to ensure those women can have families if they want to, we need to admit (3) men are part of how they will do this.

This is a newer idea than you might think. Fifteen years ago, Joyce Purnick, the first woman Metro editor at the New York Times, gave a commencement speech at Barnard in which she suggested that the surest way for a woman to reach the top of an “all-consuming profession” was to forgo children altogether. Any woman journalist who had to take maternity leave or depart the office at six p.m, she argued, could never compete with men, or with a child-free woman able to stick around. I was working in a newsroom at the time, with one young child and another on the way, and what I remember from the ensuing firestorm is how little talk there was that fathers might, you know, help. That a man could be the parent who left “early” wasn’t in the conversational mix.

Which is not to say that today’s skeptics are wrong: women in leadership roles on Wall Street face a crushing workday. In an era of overwork, it’s crucial that employers find ways to enable male and female workers to meet caregiving obligations to family members—who, by the way, aren’t just children. But even in a kinder, saner world for families, there will be jobs that require early mornings, late nights, and last-minute travel: journalism will always involve, for some reporters, getting on a plane on short notice to cover a hurricane or a war or a political campaign. Women often have been kept out of those jobs, in part, because they could not call on the men in their lives to help them in a truly significant way. What struck me, reading the Times piece, was the comment from one husband when his banker-wife called and said she’d like to swing by the gym after work. “Go for it,” he said—he’d keep watching the children. This is something women have been waiting a long time to hear.

We may also be seeing an ideological renaissance of “specialization,” a concept introduced by economist Gary Becker. Back in the early 1980s, Becker argued that households are most efficient when one spouse assumes primary responsibility for the home front, freeing the wage-earning spouse to be super-productive at work. For obvious reasons, feminists deplored this theory, seeing it as a rationale for keeping women in the kitchen. The progressive goal has been a more egalitarian, 50-50 system, in which both members of a parental partnership work reasonable hours and contribute domestically. But while many couples achieve this, or try to, specialization does work for some families, sometimes temporarily, sometimes long-term. Among same-sex couples with children, a significant number also choose to specialize.

The banker whose boss was pleased to learn she had a husband with a lower-paying, more flexible job in the Times article was in keeping with the Becker theory. Granted, this is a little chilling: We want bosses to measure us by performance and not hours, and we want a fair shake for workers whose spouses also work. But more men providing logistical at-home support does give women workers added credibility. People in these kinds of careers inevitably have to make hard choices. That women—and men—have more choices than we used to represents progress. Oh, and the executive editor of the New York Times today? A woman. Who also happens to be a mother.