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Married Men with Stay-at-Home Wives Have Negative Attitudes Of Working Women, Study Says

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Manager & HR Pro’s Resource Center

Gender bias in the workplace is the subject of hundreds of scholarly articles and even more cases by courts.

But a recently-published study looked at whether the working status of a married man affects the man’s attitude of women in the workplace.

The conclusion? It’s not pretty.

We found that marriage structure has important implications for attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to gender among heterosexual married men in the workplace. Specifically, men in traditional marriages—married to women who are not employed—disfavor women in the workplace and are more likely than the average of all married men to make decisions that prevent the advancement of qualified women.

Results show that employed men in traditional marriages tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) perceive organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny qualified female employees opportunities for promotions more frequently than do other married male employees. Moreover, our final study suggests that men who are single and then marry women who are not employed may change their attitudes toward women in the workplace, becoming less positive.

So, are married men with stay-at-home wives ogres in the workplace — walking around mindlessly discriminating against women? Not quite, say the authors:

It is entirely possible that men in traditional marriages are unaware of their implicit gender biases, and their implicit attitudes about women in the workplace may be operating at an unconscious level. It is also possible that they may perceive their explicit biases to be privately held, and they may hold the erroneous belief that these explicit biases have no effect on attitudes or behaviors of consequence in the workplace. Either way, it is conceivable that men in traditional marriages are not intentionally being punitive toward women in the workplace

But the notion that even men who don’t show any “outward” signs of hostility towards women may still discriminate against them is still unsettling.

Even if you disagree with the premise, it’s still an interesting study that was brought to my attention by a column in this morning’s Hartford Courant.

So what’s an organization to do? Well, refusing to hire married men with stay-at-home wives is not the solution, according to the study’s authors.  Instead, the study suggests that an emphasis on diversity can blunt the effects of this unconscious bias.

A critical response…  is to establish responsibility for diversity. …  According to Kalev, Dobbin, and Kelly (2006), responsibility can entail (1) assigning accountability for setting diversity goals, devising means to achieve those goals, and evaluating progress; and (2) appointing full-time staff members or creating diversity committees or task forces composed of people from different departments, professional backgrounds, and management levels to oversee diversity initiatives, brainstorm to identify remedies, and monitor progress. Of course, these forms of responsibility pertain to promoting the representation of any protected class of workers, not just women, and as we have urged, they should not focus on men embedded in traditional marriages but instead reflect an awareness of where subtle prejudices and negative stereotypes may lie.

To be sure, even the study’s authors acknowledge the limitations on their research, noting that ”we need to exercise some caution in interpreting our results.”  The authors go on, for example, to note that “While our results are consistent with the proposition that being in dual-earner marriages activates more egalitarian values in male employees, we had longitudinal data to support this hypothesis in only one of the studies.”

So, the study isn’t proof that discrimination is running rampant in Fortune 500 companies. But it is a reminder that despite all the progress that companies have made to fight discrimination, it remains important to be vigilant.

  • Jon Orleans

    Fascinating and important. Good catch on this one, Dan!