Social Issues

Why Some Men Still Think Women Shouldn’t Work


From left: Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda star in the 1980 film 9 to 5

Photograph by 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

From left: Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda star in the 1980 film 9 to 5

In the 1980 movie 9 to 5, Lily Tomlin’s male boss denies her a promotion because, as he puts it, “the company needs a man in this position.” Tomlin blows up at him. She criticizes the corporate boys’ club and men who feel threatened by ambitious women. “Spare me the women’s lib crap, OK?” her boss tells her. He still doesn’t give her the promotion.

Thirty-four years later, 9 to 5 feels dated. Women now make up almost half of the workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. No one says “women’s lib,” anymore, and thankfully we’ve all given up on shoulder pads. But considering a report published in Administrative Science Quarterly, the movie might not be as antiquated as we’d like to think.

In a series of five studies and surveys conducted over the past six years—and with data stretching as far back as 1996—a team of business school professors led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Sredhari Desai found that married men in “traditional” marriages (they’re the sole breadwinners while their wives do not work) view women in their workplace unfavorably, are much less likely to take jobs at companies with female board members, and may even pass over female co-workers for promotions in classic 9 to 5 fashion.

“I was fairly surprised to find such a strong correlation between the types of marriages men were in and the attitudes they hold at work,” says Desai. “This is the USA in 2014! I really thought things would be different.”

Part of Desai’s study was based on the 1996 and 2002 General Social Surveys (GSS), a national sociological study run through the University of Chicago that’s been conducted annually since 1972. In it, participants were asked whether they agreed with some pretty blunt statements: “women should not work,” a “wife should help her husband’s career first,” and “it’s better for a man to work and a woman to tend to home.” Desai found that men with stay-at-home wives were much more likely to agree with the statements than those married to career women. She also found that even if a single man had a more progressive mindset, once he entered into a traditional marriage his opinion of working women lowered over time.

The converse was also true: Once a man married a woman who worked, he was more likely to accept female co-workers. Desai tested her findings on 200 current male managers, asking them to recommend a fictional job applicant for a certain position based only on a résumé. Men in traditional marriages overwhelmingly preferred the résumé when it had a male name attached to it.

“We talk so much about gender gaps in workplaces, but this is what I like to call a family gap,” says Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University and the author of The Unfinished Revolution: How a New Generation Is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America. The family gap, says Gerson, is the sociopolitical difference between people in traditional marriages and those in more unconventional relationships. “We know it affects politics and voting behavior. Now we see their values spilling over into the workplace.”

The GSS survey data were admittedly a little old, so in 2008 Desai and her colleagues got a group of married undergraduate students together to see if attitudes had changed. In a series of tests, they found that even millennial men in traditional marriages were less enthusiastic about working for a company that had female executives than one where the executives were all men.

“I wondered if how they were raised played a role, so I controlled for whether they grew up with a working or stay-at-home mom,” says Desai. “I found their mothers’ careers didn’t have much effect.” That matches Gerson’s research into family dynamics: Our lives take so many twists and turns, she says, that by the time we reach adulthood our values don’t necessarily align with the ones we had growing up.

For women, Desai’s study may sound disheartening. But there are some bright spots: Only 20 percent of married couples have traditional marriages in which the wife is unemployed, which means the a-woman’s-place-is-in-the-home viewpoint isn’t the norm anymore. And Desai found that men in dual-breadwinning households don’t have the same biases—in fact, when it came to picking between résumés, they actually preferred the women’s.

As marriages become more egalitarian, so will offices. That will be good for women, of course. But it’ll also be good for men. Nobody wants to become the boss from 9 to 5—and not just because later on in the movie, Lily Tomlin puts rat poison in his coffee.

Suddath is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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