Why Female CEOs Need a Wife – Or At Least at Stay-At-Home Husband

husband doing the laundry

Anyone — man or woman — who hopes to rise to the position of C.E.O. needs a big support system. In the past, “People used to say that men needed a wife at home and a wife at the office – the traditional secretary,” Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter said in a recent New York Times article. “Now women need the same thing: an assistant at work and a stay-at-home husband or at least a husband who’s very flexible and supportive. Anyone who hopes to be a corporate chief executive needs a big support system.”

When asked what men could do to help advance women’s leadership, Ms. Kanter, author of the landmark Men and Women of the Corporation, answered, “The laundry.”

There’s still a social stigma for the stay-at-home or less successful husband that women don’t face. And management experts say that that has to change if women are going to be represented in the top jobs at a level commensurate with their numbers and talent.

“Women are not going to say, ‘My husband is not as successful as he could have been because he’s been supporting me,’ ” Ms. Kanter went on to say. “It would be seen as putting him down. But when the shoe is on the other foot, men say, ‘She really helped me.’ People say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that he has someone who allows him to focus on his work?’ This is culturally valued.”

Statistics suggest that people who aspire to America’s top corporate jobs had better have a spouse, partner or someone else willing to be devoted to their career.

While this is common sense, common sense usually takes a vacation when it comes to dating and relationships. While alpha males might be attracted to alpha females, the most common and successful relationships occur where partners have different roles. If both people are working 60 hours a week, nobody has much to give to the relationship.

A CEO needs a really patient, supportive and understanding partner who’s going to stick by his/her side. Which is why this is a core principle of my dating coaching – date your complement, not your clone.

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  1. 1

    If you’re a CEO you can afford to hire help to do the laundry and cooking. But I agree – I don’t see how both people in the relationship can work 60 hr weeks and have it survive. Someone will have to slow down.

  2. 2

    This is just common sense. Establishing a practical division of labor is key in romantic relationships. If one partner is the more career-oriented, how on earth can a balanced, happy domestic life be achieved if the other partner isn’t devoted to keeping the home fires burning? Even outsourcing the chores still won’t create a balance of *energy* in the relationship.  

    My fiance works incredibly long hours in a high-stress professional environment, and I take care of everything else. We are both blissfully happy with this arrangement. I couldn’t imagine working the long hours I used to work before we met and still creating the level of peace and stability we have in our home– it would be impossible. It wouldn’t be “challenging”, or potential madcap fodder for a Sarah Jessica Parker movie. Rather it would be a total fail wherein he would be in nutritional/domestic shambles and I would be stressed-out and lacking in nurture and the critical (for me) ability to have a clean, beautiful home with all the resources I need.

    I realize many women are more career-oriented than I am, but if I were, I wouldn’t be looking for a male version of myself. Who would fold the towels? Who would give me massages after an 80-hour work week? These are critical factors– seriously, someone has to be there to support you career-driven ladies. A “real” man can still fulfill this role. It’s just a matter of finding one and being open to such a relationship.  

  3. 3

    I have met very few men who are willing to say, “yes, I would like for my educated wife to stay at home with the kids/take care of the house while I earn the money.”   Please tell me where this kind of guy is, because I have yet to have a relationship with someone with this kind of outlook.   Until then, I have to keep pursuing my career.   I can tell you that many women, at least friends of mine, are working only because they have to, not because they really want to.   Otherwise, why would we bother to care about a man’s income potential?   Thus, because we are in a position to be “independent” we really have no choice but to keep climbing the corporate ladder.   It doesn’t make any sense not to.   If, one day, our partners say that work is optional, we will exercise that option!  

    1. 3.1

      I was a sahm (with MBA).   If I were to do this again I would agree on the condition of “splitting” husbands earnings under a contract drawn up by a lawyer with terms agreed upon in the event of a divorce – yes sounds unromantic. Many husbands (I have heard about) end up leaving after business/skills are developed leaving wife with no resources or ability to be competitive in the job market.   Best solution without a doubt is to not to quit work and instead hire exceptional childcare/household mgt even if it costs one salary. If a divorce happens then skills are up to date and each partner is economically secure. The most important career decision a women can make (paraphrased from Sheryl Sandburg) is to marry the right husband. I like to add to that “and take care of your children by being economically capable and competitive”. It is just the way it is.


  4. 4

    I grew up in a liberal household.     I had a job in college where a lot of my coworkers were feminists.     On an intellectual level I can’t see there being any big deal with a man being a house husband.     On other levels I would never do it.   I wouldn’t feel comfortable with someone supporting me for more than a short time.   I’ve dated women who make more than I do, but not by a whole lot.   I don’t think I would feel comfortable dating a woman in another tax bracket or economic class.   I used to be neighbors with a house husband couple.   The dude stayed home all day and took care of their infant.     Despite all of my beliefs on an intellectual level I found myself feeling contempt for that guy.  

  5. 5

    I highly doubt there are many men who want to be househusbands. So what’s a woman who loves her career supposed to do? No easy answer here, but here’s a Lady Gaga quote I like:

    “some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your dreams aren’t going to wake up one day and tell you they don’t love you anymore.”

    1. 5.1
      Augustine Thomas

      “remember that your dreams aren’t going to wake up one day and tell you they don’t love you anymore.”

      Hell yes they are! A lot more likely than kids!
      (Kids are the only people who will take care of dying old secularists–other secularists want to euthanize them.)

  6. 6

    Also, in today’s economy, 40 hour workweeks are not an option

    1. 6.1

      Your claim of the end of the 40 hour work week is not entirely true.

      I am a professional who works just slightly shy of 45 hours per week, because I chose a career field that enables this.    I think many people needs to step back and consider their career choice , financial and home buying decisions, and also all the other decisions that impact on free time and ability to support relationships ( i.e. locating in a place where lengthy commutes are not the norm). My commute is 10 minutes each way and my schedule gives me ample free time.

  7. 7

    This is probably true, esp. as the person moves up the ladder, but if you give up your own ability to pay your bills to support someone else’s career, then you’d better get something in writing about what will happen to you should you divorce.

    I have a lot of successful female college classmates who have house husbands, and they are high up enough the corporate ladder that it makes sense.   But I’d advocate for their rights for a fair settlement should those women ever decide to leave the relationship, b/c we are talking about YEARS of no income for one partner.     

    I personally think this is a good reason to maybe aim a little below the top, b/c I don’t want to give up my career for anyone, and don’t want to have to support someone forever either.     

  8. 9

    Hi Rene,

    Something to note: the ultra-traditional (not repressive, but naturally of that persuasion) heteronormative men who are happy to support a stay-at-home wife are only really attracted to women who are their feminine counterparts/complements. So the best way to find and attract a man who 1.) dotes on you unconditionally and 2.) puts no pressure on you to pursue a full-time career in favor of pursuits which may or may not be economically-motivated is to *be* the happy homemaker, sweet, supportive domestic goddess type with traditional values.

    If that’s not who you really are as a woman, then it’ll be hard for you to find a man who will be down with supporting you because men who follow that very traditional marriage model want a woman who does also. It may not actually be what you want, in fact. It works for me, but my partner works 70-90 hours a week and I like to do charity work/stay fit/make our home beautiful.

    1. 9.1
      Julius Lukoševičius

      You are making wild extrapolations about all men based on your particular relationship. It serves no one well to do that. My wife has been the so-called breadwinner for many years, but is currently out of work, and may be so for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, I have always doted on her unconditionally, regardless of who has/has not been bringing in money and will continue to do so even if she chooses to leave Corporate America  permanently, which she is seriously considering at this point. High-power careers in male-dominated fields are unkind to people hitting middle age, and doubly so for women, people of color, and foreigners like myself.

      As it stands, I do more than half of the cleaning, all home-based repairs, and all cooking. The ratios may change as my company takes off  (I am the CEO – hardly in the vein of Donald Trump, but it is my brain-child – and she may work for me; but how many hours per week she spends on that is up to her).  But I will continue to contribute to all home-based needs as I see fit, without regard to what “heteronormative” gender roles dictate. My wife is not a “domestic goddess” as you call it, and we are both quite far to the left, particularly by American standards, yet I do housework as I do it and it doesn’t emasculate me. I don’t want a domestic goddess. I DO want a sexy, funny, brilliant woman who knows her way around the bedroom, enjoys my company (including in said bedroom), and has hobbies and passions, and since my wife fulfills those qualities and more, I don’t need anything else.

      This is not a popular view for some reason, but I believe that intelligence, education, and appearance are often larger factors in the success or failure of a relationship. While outliers certainly exist, it’s been my observation that most successful married couples, straight or gay, are matched closely in looks, IQ, and education. (Education =/= “number of degrees,” of course. Many a dullard has been granted an Ivy League degree. An educated person is curious about the world in which he lives and actively seeks to increase his knowledge.)

  9. 10
    Hadley Paige

    That stay at home partner/wife of the high flying CEO woman better be a woman bc that CEO woman is not going to respect any stay at home guy. And that lack of respect is going to erode her love of him which will lead to a divorce. I don’t want it to be that way. I don’t need it to be that way. But that’s the way I have seen it go down.
    Frankly. I wouldn’t mind doing it, in theory.   But my experience has been that (rightly or wrongly) a woman who says that she can have a satisfying long term relationship with a stay at home guy is lying — either to the listener or to herself; or she is naive or delusional. And if she says she can’t or won’t do that (househusband) then if a feminist she gets the hypocrisy award for calling for full equality but only demanding it in those areas where it is advantageous to the woman.

    1. 10.1
      Julius Lukoševičius

      Maybe that’s how it goes down in other parts of the U.S. Certainly I’ve lived in cities and states where the 1950s mentality prevailed with respect to women working at all, let alone being the breadwinner with the power career. However, in NYC, things are altogether different, and you will find many stay at home husbands in happy long-term marriages with their high-power executive wives. The husbands who do work, usually do something part-time, free-lance, or home-based. I believe there are two reasons for this:

      1. NYC is unlike any other city in the U.S. It is a global city, attracting people from around the world, including those from countries that have vary different views of gender roles.

      2. NYC has always been a mecca for the LGBT community, which, like other oppressed groups (for example, American-born Blacks descended from slaves), has functioned as an American cultural leader in everything from fashion to human relations. As such, hidebound  adherence to  gender roles favored by well-off Americans of the  middle 20th-century is rather passé around these parts. If a man is a stay at home or earns a support income, he can easily find others like him, and the relative  lack of “man = breadwinner” dogma reduces the chance that men feel emasculated or women disdainful of an arrangement other than the “traditional.”

  10. 11

    CEOs are a pretty small minority. I’ve actually known a few men who were stay-at-home husbands, but their wives had more down-to-earth, but still very busy careers ranging from nurse to television producer. It sounds like it could be a great arrangement, and perhaps it is initially, but all the women wound up resenting their husbands for not contributing more financially. On the other hand, I’ve known a few men who had stay-at-home wives and ultimately ended up resenting them for not being more career-oriented. In general, most couples I see seem to want more equity in their relationships.

  11. 12

    There actually are female CEOs now.   What are their marital arrangements, for the sake of argument?

  12. 13

    @Sayanta, I LOVE that quote, and it sums up how I feel perfectly.   You have a lot more control over your life if you never give up your ability to pay your own bills.

    I mean, it’s a personal choice, but if you gamble that way and lose, it’s kind of on you, and I hate hearing people whine about how they got left with nothing for that very reason.   

    If you are really that high up the ladder, professions like teachers make for good mates b/c they can take sabbaticals and at most can only find part-time summer work (e.g. summer school teaching).   

    @Steve, I recall reading an article several years ago in Forbes that talked about that…and the women profiled had husbands who had either quit working all together or just settled for low profile careers, as in rank and file engineers for example.   I mean, if you look at some of the highest ranking female execs currently, it’s a mix, and as I said, in my own life, I know women are very high up the food chain (SVPs, C-level execs) married to house husbands, engineers, teachers, and other “regular” white and sometimes blue collar jobs.    Those are all jobs that are very 9 to 5 at the non-managerial/administrative level.  

    Meg Whitman’s husband is a doctor but followed her jobs, and that is actually a good career for someone who has to follow a corporate type b/c you can work anywhere in the country where you have passed board exams. Carly Fiorina’s husband was at AT&T when she was there but I think either didn’t work at all or again had a more “regular” white collar job when she led HP.   Andrea Jung of Avon was married to the CEO of Bloomingdales.   Some other female execs do have successful marriages with male execs;   when I was in business school we had a talk from a CEO and I was surprised that his wife was a high ranking exec in her company.   I think that Ursula Burns’s husband is just a regular white collar employee at Xerox(a scientist), and I’m not sure what the husband of the incoming CEO of IBM does.  

    Oh, but a recent profile in the NY times said that out of 28 women who had been CEO of Fortune 500 companies, 26 had been married, only one was never married,   and only one was divorced (I’m assuming Andrea Jung).     

  13. 14

    Here’s an article about female CEOs and their husbands. It’s from 2002, but still a decent read.

  14. 15

    @ Nicole, # 13.   I couldn’t agree with you more.   I think there is a danger in engaging in black/white thinking about relationships, because there are WAY too many variables and permutations  that account for why some couples make it, and some don’t.

    I have seen many, many examples, both in my personal sphere and in the public forum, that demonstrate that it is all probably at least partly random.       How many sweet, gorgeous, supportive wives have done everything right in a marriage, only to be left for a younger woman   after 40? Conversely, I have known some demanding, selfish, fat shrews who are married to great men that do not leave them.

    Also, many successful people I know, i.e., doctors, are often married to another  doctor or someone in an equally demanding profession.   I have been in medicine for almost 25 years.   I have seen a very big change  in the dynamics of relationships  of the younger  professionals coming up.     The residents and fellows I know that are late 20s to late 30s seem to be mostly in egalitarian marriages (both with demanding careers) and it doesn’t seem to be an issue for them.
    I think many of the younger men expect that their wife will have a career, even if she does stay home with the kids for a  time.   A small minority of the younger male doctors I know have a stay-at-home wives.

    It is not just alpha females that do not  enjoy  the home-making role.   I don’t consider myself alpha and was never interested in being Suzy Homemaker, even as a little girl.   My two sisters are domestic goddesses, and enjoy it.
    As someone else pointed out, you can always hire a cook and housekeeper if you are making the big bucks.  

    In any case, the bottom line  is that there are no guarantees, regardless of the choice you make.   I could never be dependent on any one  for support, because, in many cases, it is a trap.  

  15. 16

    If all these CEO’s want is someone to be at their beck and call and available to rub their feet whenever they need it, why not just go for a live-in prostitute? It would make things so much easier.
    Secondly, I live in New York City and the cost of living is quite high. There are very few people who are in a position to have a spouse stay at home without earning an income. So, the nature of this discussion is either reserved for the top 5% of the U.S. population, or for those who live in a place where the cost of living is relatively low compared to income.

    1. 16.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      Yes, Trenia, this is reserved for the top 5% of the population. You can tell because the title referred to CEOs. And if you’re a CEO, you don’t need a second income.

      1. 16.1.1
        Julius Lukoševičius

        Certainly by most New Yorkers’ standards, a family with a CEO in it doesn’t “need” a 2nd income, but we should never underestimate the seductive quality of money, especially after one has acquired a certain amount of it…

  16. 17

    I think if you want to be a high flying CEO.. you better just get used to the idea that a real relationship isn’t part of the package deal. Just ask any hollywood entertaiment actor or musician. Just ask Kim Kardashian.

    Point is, if either person is working 60 hours a week, that’s 60 hours a week you are away from your partner. And that’s just not conducive.

    You want money, wealth, prestige and work all the long hours to get it? Then give up on holding down a proper relationship because you don’t have the time/energy/resources to cultivate and keep one. Anyone who says it’s been done is lying or looking past the fact that some arrangements are simply a matter of convenience and not based on real feelings. When relationships are built like on a business and economic model, it may work.. but i wouldn’t not call that a ‘real’ relationship.

    It’s all about balance. Work/life. When it’s out of balance, somethings gonna give.

  17. 18


    Did you read Nicole’s post and the link to the article that I posted? How do you explain that?

  18. 19

    I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of job Mike has that he thinks that people who work 60 hours a week can’t have successful relationships. I don’t think he read any of it and this is his chance to gripe at gold-digging women and their superficiality despite our discussion being about high-powered, highly-paid FEMALE executives and CEOs.   

    Besides the fact that many blue collar professionals and skilled tradespeople will work those kinds of hours b/c of the overtime pay, he’s pretty much wrongly assuming that doctors, lawyers, consultants, nurses, i-bankers,   and low level managers, and many, many other professionals can’t stay married.    You don’t have to be a “big-shot” to have to work long hours.

    @Mike, people who work frequently have to work more than 40 hours a week.   If you are lucky, you have a job that let’s you finish the surplus from home.   And you don’t have to be “high-flyin CEO” for that to be true. There is a lot of middle ground to be had, not to mention the fact that the less one partner works, the more the other one has to.    Gender aside, someone has to pay the bills and that requires more than a 35 hour week and doesn’t require that people be overly materialistic.

    Actually, the best argument for both people working at least 40 hours each is precisely so that no one is at home feeling neglected as someone else works long hours to pay the bills by him or herself.   If you’re in the OR performing surgery for 6 hours you won’t feel ignored if your spouse is trying to clock all of his billable hours for the month.     

    I think that as long as you don’t feel like there is a party going on that you aren’t a part of, someone else’s work schedule won’t bother you.   

  19. 20

    Hey, maybe Mike’s French. 35 hour workweek for those Parisians- that’s why they always look so happy ;-p

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