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


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. 21

    To be blunt here:

    I think it’s perfectly  feasible for two high-flying careerists to have a beautifully happy relationship together.   I’ve seen it enough times to know  how frequent it is.

    Just one caveat: they shouldn’t have kids.   Or the kids  should have left the roost.      

  2. 22

    Agree with Helen. Two high-rollers without kids can make their relationship work, because their incomes allow them the luxuries of last-minute getaways and paying others to keep the home fires burning. But once you factor kids into that scenario, game over. I’m a feminist and was always a working mother, but I still think it’s unfair and selfish to have kids and expect them to work their lives around yours, competing for tiny bits of your time, attention, energy just so you can keep your prestigious, powerful, big-bucks career. Don’t want to sacrifice? Don’t have kids. Want to keep that powerful CEO position you worked so hard for? I don’t blame you, just don’t have kids.   On the other hand, I don’t think it’s healthy for either one of the couple to be a full-time stay-at-home, with or without kids. Adults need interaction with other adults on a regular basis or someone winds up either resentful or disrespected.  

    Frankly, I’m always surprised to still hear about these men who allegedly want their women to stay home while they battle the outside world & bring home the bacon. They must be living in the same place that unicorns do, because I have yet to meet one in my lifetime. Quite the opposite, in fact. My experience in relationships, including my marriage, have been with men who wanted/expected me to at least match their incomes (and often my income was higher) and yet STILL expected me to do the larger share of parenting, household upkeep, making sure the bills were paid, homework done, lunches made, even getting the car repaired. Not to mention their expectation that I stay fit, informed, fashionable, and never too tired to find them fascinating — in & out of bed. Seriously, I think the mythical I-Want-To-Provide male drew his last breath around 1980.   At the very latest.

    1. 22.1
      Evan Marc Katz

      @Zann. I’m an I-Want-To-Provide male. Wife and I both seem to be happy in our roles. So there.

  3. 23

    @Evan #17 – thanks for bringing common sense into it.
    @K #1,   @Trenia #16 –   I don’t think the points in the original articles were so much about existing CEOs……there you are correct, they can afford help for outsourcing chores.     The issue is for people who have NOT climbed the corporate ladder YET.     Those people need spouses who will pitch in practical and emotional support ( often giving more without getting it back ).     Think of the person working two jobs to put a spouse through medical school.
    @Nicole #20, thanks for bringing what really happens into the thread :).   I was surprised to see you list engineering as the occupations of the husbands of women CEOs.     I’m not an engineer, I am a programmer.   I’ve been lucky enough to get jobs with stable hours, but that is not the norm for my field.   I guess engineers have it different.     Based on the culture of my field I wouldn’t have guessed that engineers would be emotionally supportive spouses for women climbing corporate ladders.   Maybe it is more of a situation where engineers who are men don’t demand the same amount of attention as women with ambitious husbands would want.   I’m guessing the engineers would be grateful to be left alone to do all the work and studying they want and have their wives not care as they are off doing their own thing.
    Having written all that and aside from the other issues, I couldn’t see getting involved with such a woman unless I knew the person before they started climbing the ladder.       I’ve stopped dating women once I saw they were workaholics and saw that my time with them would always be limited.

  4. 24

    High fives to Sayanta and Nicole!

    When people talk about women working and the division of labor on the home front, they always talk about the value of the woman’s work in financial terms. How about women who love their work and wouldn’t for a moment ever consider giving it up, no matter what it paid?

    I love working. I just love it. It’s who I am. In my 20s I had two  marriage proposals from guys who were keen on my getting pregnant right away. I lived with both of them and they could do nothing around the house. They completely ignored my professional work and credentials and were oblivious to my financial independence. I said NO. As time has gone on I’ve done extremely well and cannot imagine what kind of hell I’d be in had I given up my beloved career to take care of these boring guys (at the time everyone was saying that “boring” equals “good” when it comes to boyfriends).  I would have gone crazy.    

    Just got my first housekeeper and I am so appreciative of the work she does. I am also glad that I can pay her for three hours of work and don’t have to support her financially, as I would a househusband. So, I vote for parity in encoupled relationships! Each person does what he/she loves to do and the rest of the jobs you outsource to people who love to do that kind of work and are happy to do it.

  5. 25

    French.. hahaha. It is to laugh. Canadian actually, but not french-canadian.

    Think what you will, if you can pull it off go for it. Myself, i’ve seen one too many a marriage disintegrate for lack of quality time between two people. Or maybe we just have differing points of view on what kind of feelings constitute a loving relationship. Perhaps you can work 10 hours a day and be on your cell on weekends and still find time to do ‘relationship’ things.

    I love watching celebrities get married, spend weeks/months apart working on their own separate careers/clothing lines/media events and then wonder why they drifted apart or were cheated on. Fascinating stuff really.

    Marriages/relationships of convenience where you’re with a person just to fill out the status box on the voting registration form as being married, or applying for tax credits, happen all the time. I wouldn’t call any of these being real. How many male corporate ceo’s look like a dried up scrotum, yet have a really hot woman? think thats love? it would be reasonable to assume the reversal as well. No one wants to show up to the black tie affair without a significant other so they shack up based on status. High monied men want gorgeous women of high sexual value, that is what conveys status. Women want equally powerful, wealthy alpha men, not househusbands, because that is what conveys status for them. Hypergamous instincts prevail. Women don’t marry down. If they do, divorce is usually   on the horizon.

    So my initial remarks stand. If you think it can be done on the cheap, putting in minimal time because you’re so devoted to your career as a high flying ceo, then by all means try. Then try and justify the multiple affairs you have when you’re traveling to exotic locales in your private jet while hubbies at home ironing your bedsheets. I mean, how often have we heard of women who cheat on their men because they placed a higher priority on their career/job (ie. making money to support their lifestyle the woman appreciated) over spending time with her and making her feel needed, so she found it with someone else.

    For the record, I’m talking about the ones that require a huge amount of time to make the money, not those already swimming in it with the ability to delegate out time to underlings.

    Disagree, flame away. Doesn’t change my reality.

  6. 26

    I’m curious- I don’t know how old you are, you talked about those men you met in your 20s- how do men your age react to your career and financial independence now?

  7. 27

    @ Ann, #25,

    You are one smart cookie!

  8. 28

    Ann 25, it sounds as though you are genuinely happy with your choices, and I am delighted for you. Of course, in an ideal relationship, one would not have to give up the work one loves because of the spouse / SO.   But in reality, sometimes that is just how it works. Things become even more complicated if and when kids come into the picture.   Then one or the other, often both, have to make enormous sacrifices.   It is smart for you to question whether you want to make these kinds of sacrifices before you are smack in the middle of the situation and cannot turn back.

  9. 29

    I can’t help but think about the article I read just today in Vanity Fair about Margaret Thatcher.   Strong lady, yet deferred to her husband in many ways.   Respected the opinions and strength of men, yet leader of a world power.   Not sure how this all adds up.   No rhyme or reason, I always say.

  10. 30

    @Steve, I was an engineer for many years and perhaps outside of a competitive tech start-up, it’s a pretty comfortable life that pays well.
    So it’s a GREAT 9 to 5 career that has flex time, good wages, etc. and I worked with some men whose wives were much higher up the ladder than they were and this worked out well b/c they could deal with the logistics of kids and household chores for example.   I also saw the reverse.   

    It seems as people have mentioned, culturally, a woman with a high-powered husband is more likely to chuck work all together, and   man with a high powered wife is more likely to opt for a less demanding career than to be a househusband entirely, although some do, and as I said, I went to a school where a lot of people are very successful and some of my classmates (e.g. surgeons, execs, lawyers) are married to househusbands (or writers, artists, etc.)

    I did have one co-worker who had an interesting set-up.   She was kind of nutty to me in other ways but both she AND her husband were engineers in our company and they both worked part-time.   The husband eventually moved into academia but it was their way of balancing two kids, one of whom was sickly and both of whom they wanted to homeschool.

    The articles I’ve read and the people I know personally support the point that is frequently made on this blog.   People take it to extremes, but for example, two mid level managers don’t have super crazy taxing jobs and yet can be quite comfortable financially.   Ditto for two engineers, and in some less expensive locations, two teachers.   It’s that extreme, high level, high profile kind of person who needs a person who is perhaps willing to take a backseat and settle for a more average career I think.   Or you might have a couple where both people are very successful and aren’t that needy and it probably works out fine.

    I think that a lot of people who comment on these careers aren’t in them, and don’t have any firsthand experience with people who are in them, but you know, if your friends and/or family are all highly-educated then you see plenty of doctors, lawyers, execs, etc. who are part of successful, long-term marriages with people who are in similar fields. Some of them actually become “easier” when you are higher up b/c you can pass off the bad tasks and long hours to your underlings, or can negotiate certain things to let them be home more.    I do think that there is a point where the demands can become a problem but some of these jobs don’t become THAT crazy unless you are near the top ,and the culture of certain companies can make a HUGE difference too.     

  11. 31

    To respond to Sayanta, Margaret, Helen: I am in my 40s and have not been without a relationship in more than 20 years, even though I never married. My longest relationships was 7 years. Been with  my BF for 3, though we’ve known each other  since our early 30s.  He’s in one of those complementary professions 🙂 and has no desire to marry or have kids.

    I don’t have kids, and if it came  down to a choice between kids and career, it would be career. No question. I sat myself down, thought about it long and hard,  and made this choice when I was 20, so it isn’t like the no-marriage-no-kids thing  happened by default.  That said, if the  time/guy had been right I would have  gotten married and had one child, max.  The guy would have had to be an equal partner financially and on the homefront, and there weren’t many guys in my age range and none in my environment who could handle that arrangement. All of the guys  I dated have pretty much ended up in marriages with the traditional division of labor, which would not have suited me at all, and no amount of passion for him was going to make me want to keep house and take care of kids for him, especially when I had/have so much talent elsewhere.   

    What’s maybe different for me is that my work has always felt like a calling (see Lady Gaga quote in #5), and I never felt that way about marriage/kids. That my work has been well received and has provided me with wealth and experiences that most people never get and that I never imagined back when I was 20 is only icing on the cake and an affirmation that I made the right choice for me.  

    Men think I’m great,  and I think they’re great. In general, though, I don’t like people  who have these traditional expectations of women and judgments of  people who aren’t married or don’t have kids. If my BF and I were to break up I don’t think it would be hard for me to find another relationship. But we probably won’t break up–as you get older  relationships tend to deepen, I find, and so partnership is more about sharing a life path  than about hormones and procreating.  It’s really nice. And  my accomplishments and experiences fill up my life and keep growing–so no empty nest is in the offing and I can follow my calling till the day I die.  

    Not a bad deal, if you ask me.         

  12. 33

    Ann, I definitely agree   with you.   I would like to have had one child (max).   It didn’t happen, for various reasons.   I am not bitter.   I love my career and love that I can call my own shots.   I could not change if I wanted to.   My mother says that I came out of the womb independent.  

    I am 50, attractive and vibrant, but few choices with regard to consorts.   That’s ok.   I realize that I am the sum total of all the choices I have made in my life.   I married once, in my  early 20s , for all the wrong reasons.   Divorced, with no animosity.  

    Just because you are kind, beautiful, nurturing and self-effacing does  NOT mena every thi      

  13. 34

    I cut myself off on my last post.   Just because someone does everything right (male or female) does not mean everything will work out.

  14. 35
    Owen Marcus

    For a man it’s not so much what he’s doing, but why. If what he is doing is fitting his purpose – who he wants to be as man he’s good. I have known men where their passion and purpose was staying home with the kids. If his purpose not to stay at home – the relationship won’t work.

  15. 36

    [email protected]: I know. They never tell you that you can follow all the rules and still be unhappy. They also never tell you that you can do things your own way (buck tradition and what is supposed to make us happy–like marriage, kids–but which we suspect will not) and that everything will be fine. Or even great.

    Got a photo yesterday of my best friend growing up–all of us at her wedding, when we were all 19. She followed all the rules–virgin on her wedding day, beautiful, sweet, deferential, helpmate, all of it. Today, now that the kids have gone, she is very angry that her parents wouldn’t let her go to college (she had to work to pay for her wedding, they said), and she wouldn’t get married again if anything happened to her husband. I’ve heard other women who “followed the rules” say the same thing, and it always surprises me, the good-girl admission that marriage and kids wasn’t enough.  

    So, it’s a tricky time in the history of male/female relationships, where there are no guarantees that any one life choice is going to offer us security, prosperity, or satisfaction. All the more reason to listen to your own  inner stirrings.  

    We all looked so young and so pretty in that photo. We were all very naive, too.   

  16. 37
    Saint Stephen

    @Ann (#38)
    No one insinuated marriage and kids was enough.
    You can have the combination of a satisfying career and a happy family life.
    Helen, being a typical example.
    It only takes a good family/work balance.
    Past tradition required marriage and kids to make women happy, But presently- women can have it all. Marriage, family, education, career etc.
    That’s a good evolution if you ask me.

  17. 38

    [email protected]: As Helen has pointed out, the other half of the equation is that men are being forced to change. They have to shoulder more responsibility for home and child care now and they don’t get to dominate because they make all the money. It’s a tough adjustment for a lot of men who saw their parents do it a different way.

  18. 39

    @ Ann # 38   It’s frustrating, indeed.   I know of a number of women in both the private and public sector who have done everything right, yet been left for a more nubile prospect.     And, I have known women who have any sort of problem, including alcoholism and bipolar disorder, who have men that stay through horrific events.

    I can cite Betty Broderick in La Jolla, CA.   Yes, the woman obviously had issues.   But, reportedledly, she was a virgin when married.   Good Catholic girl.   Upper class family.   Worked numerous jobs to put her husband through medical and law school.   Bore him 4 children while maintaining the facade of devoted, attractive wife.   Left for younger version of herself.   I don’t blame her for being pissed, though I never condone murder.

    But this  is just   another version where being the “Good Wife”   does not necessarily turn out as you’d hoped/planned.


  19. 40

    @Margaret, your post again just echoes what I believe, which is that no matter what level career you aspire to, you need to have a career.

    Betty Broderick was facing literally being with little to nothing b/c she’d worked and put all resources into furthering her husband’s career znd education while neglecting her own.   I’m never clear on why so many women think that this is a good long term strategy, but maybe it’s a generational thing.   And b/c he was a well-connected lawyer, she wasn’t going to get much of a payout.

    Oh, and Betty’s case is a popular topic on crime shows.   She had 4 kids but good Catholic girl that she was, there were about 8 pregnancies, and they took a toll on her body and her looks.   She wears her body out having this man’s kids and he trades her in.   

    My mom, who is a teacher, had a co-worker who put her husband through medical school and within weeks of his graduation, he announced to her that he was leaving her, I think for one of his classmates.

    My mom just pointed out that you should NEVER work to put anyone through school except for yourself.   She should have let her husband borrow the money just like most people do.   Instead, he got to graduate debt-free so he could start a life with someone else.    There is no legal way for her to get reimbursed for his tuition.   If she’d let him borrow the money, then had they stayed married, she could have assisted in paying it off.   But instead, she probably got left feeling really scammed and a whole lot poorer.  

    You don’t have to be a CEO, you don’t need to be a partner in a law firm, but I think that if you do nothing and have no way of earning a dime,   you are kind of silly.     

    I think that as much as people say that pre-nupes aren’t romantic (who gives a fig), if you are investing lots of money or time into furthering someone’s career while neglecting your own, you’d better get it in writing what you’ll get should that marriage dissolve.   I’d do the same myself if I was with a less successful partner who had to give up opportunities to support my ambitions.   It’s only fair.  

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