With More Women Bringing Home the Bacon, Who’s Going to Fry It Up?

Cathy Reisenwitz

12/16/2013 12:01:00 AM - Cathy Reisenwitz

With More Women Bringing Home the Bacon, Who’s Going to Fry It Up?

The New York Times has an interesting think piece up on upper-class gender relations: Wall Street Mothers, Stay-Home Fathers.

The thrust of the piece is that many of the women with children who manage to make a killing on Wall Street are able to do so because their husbands have taken their feet off the gas pedal on their own careers and are handling things on the domestic front.

What the piece helps illustrate is that making a lot of money in America still mostly requires a lot of time spent working. It is therefore mostly incompatible with being the primary person responsible for raising children and running a household. With the ascent of women to the upper echelons of finance and other highly paid careers, the question for families now and in the future becomes, who is going to take care of the house and kids?

There are three primary responses to this question offered by most thinkers and commentators. But all of them have serious drawbacks and miss a huge part of the picture.

Women Love Being Homemakers

The first response is that women are naturally suited to and mostly like being the primary person responsible for raising children and running a household. Therefore, they should do it and let their husbands bring home the bacon.

It’s true that, when asked, most women say they don’t want to work as many hours as most men. As Independent Women’s Forum Executive Director Sabrina Schaeffer recently pointed out:

It may be unpopular – or simply not politically fashionable to say this – but most women don’t want to be Sheryl Sandberg. The Pew Research Center recently found that if offered the choice, only 23 percent of married mothers would choose to work full-time outside of the home. What’s more, “working fathers place more importance on having a high-paying job, while working mothers are more concerned with having a flexible schedule.”

The problem here is that it’s a solution which relies on but does not critique the role of pernicious gender-based expectations in shaping what women "are suited to" and "want."

How ironic is this. By telling women that they are best suited to and should enjoy staying home and taking care of kids, the culture influences their desire to do so. Most women don’t want to be seen as “masculine,” just as most men don’t want to be seen as “feminine.” Mostly without ever realizing it, women are making choices that ensure they meet what they’ve spent their whole lives hearing are the expectations of their gender.

It’s also losing credibility as an accurate description of what women are best suited to as women are earning more degrees than men, and are also demonstrably better suited to earning money in an information- and service-based economy than are men.

Women Need Wives

The second response is that as now women are earning more degrees than men, it's time for women to step into breadwinner roles and men to become the new wives. This is a big part of the premise of Lean In.

The problem here is that, as the article shows, even men without jobs aren't doing as much in the childcare and household duties arena as unemployed wives do. And there is still societal stigma directed at men who don't do paid work. As mentioned before, gendered expectations persist. In this environment, unpaid work is seen as “feminine,” and a patriarchal culture swiftly punishes men seen a man acting like women.

In fact, TIME just posted a response to the NYT article, Vivia Chen: When Stay-at-Home Husbands Are Embarrassing to Their Wives, pointing out how many feel about such arrangements:

All of this points to our entrenched ambivalence about changing gender roles. Men in these situations often feel alienated, particularly if they are surrounded by stay-at-home moms. But the power moms with the stay-at-home husbands are just as uneasy, often more embarrassed than proud that they’ve upset the traditional order.

Workplaces Should Cater to Women

The third response is that American workplaces should adapt to allow women the flexibility they need to be primary caretakers AND earn big paychecks. This is the solution offered by Anne-Marie Slaughter.

The problem here is that it is kind of a fool's errand. As pointed out earlier, women don't want to work as long or as hard as men, and no amount of corporate coddling is going to make them want to.

The Fourth Way

Who should handle raising the kids and taking care of the house? Simply put, it should be whoever’s opportunity cost is lowest.

Besides being a hindrance to women, gendered expectations actually inhibit economic growth by distorting labor markets. This wasn’t much of a problem in the past. In an agriculture and manufacturing economy, most women really didn’t have as much earning potential as most men. But in an information- and service-based economy, that’s no longer true. Keeping women with high earning potential in the home because they feel that’s where they belong robs society of their potential value in careers.

But where does that leave men? Simply put, high-earning women who want to unlock their potential should wife uneducated men. The big drawback to this solution is that it requires that individuals defy gendered expectations. This is a tall order, and people who defy expectations are stigmatized accordingly.

But it’s an economic reality that people who arrange their lives this way will be more financially successful than people who either don’t get married or cling to traditional gender roles. Economics will eventually re-dictate gendered expectations to conform to what’s most effective. The winners will be the early adopters.