This weekend, the New York Times ran a big, splashy article about house husbands and their wealthy, “Wall Street” wives. The premise is that successful Wall Street women are doing it with the help of stay-at-home spouses… you know, the way that wealthy Wall Street men have been doing it for generations.
It’s an annoying premise. Of course, working a high-intensity job is easier when somebody is taking care of everything else at home. But, as Slate’s Jessica Grose points out, the problem is that anybody is expected to work to the point that they have to outsource their entire domestic lives.
Vivia Chen points out another problem in her article in Time. The New York Times article focuses on very wealthy women and their kept men. But is this really a trend? Are husbands really willing to stay home when their wives make a more “pedestrian” salary — like, say, what a lawyer makes?
In one instance, the husband put the brakes on his architecture career when his banker wife started to make twice his earnings. At that point, “the solution seemed obvious.”
What remains to be seen is what happens when the economics are not so “obvious” — when women work at more pedestrian, less lucrative jobs. Given the unease about reversing gender roles when there is a superearner in the equation, I’m not sure we’re ready to have June Cleaver go to work and Ward Cleaver stay home with the boys after all.
I don’t think it counts as trending change in gender roles if it’s something that is predominately happening among the wealthy. You wouldn’t call a person a “stay-at-home dad” if the dad won a lottery ticket and quit his crappy job. The fact that the lotto ticket happens to be a spouse is irrelevant. What the hell does Todd Palin do? Does anybody care? Is he challenging gender stereotypes by rolling around Alaska in a tracksuit?
Most people will stop working, at least in the 9-to-5, rat-race sense of the word, the moment their financial circumstances allow them to. That is nothing new. What’s new is that there are more and more women are earning the kinds of super salaries that make it economically obvious for their husbands to stay at home and focus on (arguably more rewarding) domestic pursuits. The New York Times article describes men who can afford domestic help, but are too “stoic” to use it. Whatever dude, talk about #richpeopleproblems.
The real gender role reversal would be for husbands to stay home while their wives worked and struggled to maintain a middle-class lifestyle for the family. That’s the choice that most families struggle with. Let’s say that you’re a guy and your salary and your child care costs pretty much cancel each other out, while your wife does the heavy lifting on the bills. You could work, and transfer your money directly to the day care that you need while you are at work, or you could quit and assume all of the domestic responsibilities. That’s pretty much the situation I’m in — at this point, I’m working just because I love being around all of you wonderful readers.
A lot of times, when a woman is in that situation, she’ll stop working in the office and take over all the working in the home. It’s more economically efficient. Having a live-in child-rearing, meal-cooking, dry-cleaning goddess is more efficient than having to hire those services on a case-by-case basis. But when a guy (like me) is in that situation, he’ll most often keep working. Even if it’s an economic wash, the guy doesn’t want to “give up” on his career or whatever. Most men and women don’t want to admit that their economic potential is best realized “in the home.” But women have been making that sacrifice since forever, while men always seem to think they’re just one “promotion” away from making enough money to support their family “like a man.” The thought of staying home, keeping the domestic side running smoothly, and empowering your spouse to achieve even higher levels of financial success, while you maintain a supporting role at home, is just not something that most guys do. And even when men do stay home, they don’t embrace all of the duties of house management the way many, many women do.
Of course, my wife’s a lawyer; if she were a hedge fund manager or a venture capitalist or a lotto winner, I’d quit this job and you’d never hear from me again. Instead, I go on TV. Women have to make it economically obvious to their husbands that staying at home is the right call. And that’s relatively hard for female lawyers to do, especially when they’re on their way up. A fifth-year associate simply isn’t making enough to make it obvious to her husband that she should be the one to continue working while he puts his career on hold to take care of the children. But a fifth-year male associate has a better shot of convincing his wife that “taking a break” while the kids are young makes sense for the whole family. Women will leave the workforce to contribute to their husbands’ rise, men tend to leave only once their wives have made it.
On the other side of the coin… women lawyers generally marry men who also have a lot of education and ambition and whatever. They’re not going to Hollister and marrying a boy toy for whom “working” involves physical labor or even administrative tasks. You don’t see a lot of ladies marrying their male secretaries. If you marry an educated, intelligent man, it’s much less likely he’s going to want to stay home and make dioramas for junior’s social studies class. Male lawyers do not make this mistake (at least not the second time). If you found your wife on the pole, or if you are “saving” your wife from a life at the paper mill, you are much more likely to end up with a stay at home spouse. Congratulations, just don’t ever earn any less.
I’m not trying to say that gender roles aren’t changing, and that “traditional” roles aren’t mercifully evolving. But looking at this from the perspective of Wall Street corporate leaders is a lens so skewed that it’s relatively meaningless. Even at the level just below, that of the “white-shoe lawyer,” it’s pretty obvious where gender expectations hold some people back and limit their economic choices.
And of course, we might see more gender role evolution if women could get paid equally to their male counterparts.
When Stay-at-Home Husbands Are Embarrassing to Their Wives [Time]
Women Can Rise on Wall Street If Husbands Stay Home. This Is Not Progress. [Slate]
Wall Street Mothers, Stay-Home Fathers [New York Times]
Breaking Dad: The Stay-at-Home Life [GQ]