Behind every great man, there’s a great woman—or so the saying goes. But in a time of shifting cultural norms and increasing workplace flexibility, powerful female execs hope to switch the roles in that expression.
Plenty of corporate America’s most influential women have been raving for eons about the benefits of marrying someone unafraid of domestic responsibilities. In 2002, of the 187 participants at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Summit, about 30% had househusbands. More recently, Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns credited much of her success to marrying a man 20 years her elder. He retired to take care of their two kids just when her career was hitting its stride; Ulta CEO Mary Dillon’s husband, a biochemist by training, did the same. And, of course, Facebook (FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg has famously said that picking a spouse (preferably one who splits housework) is a woman’s most important career choice.
But it all may be much ado about nothing. More dads than ever before are staying home full-time with their children—yet just 12% of female business leaders have full-time support at home from their partners. This compares to 55% of married male executives with stay-at-home spouses, according to surveys of alumnae conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School and the CUNY Graduate Center. Other studies purport that 60% of the men have partners who don’t work full-time outside the home, compared with only 10% of the women.
And despite popular culture’s anecdotal belief that younger generations perceive gender roles differently than their parents, a recent study suggests otherwise. Harvard Business Review surveyed 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates and 66% of millennial men expect their partners to take the primary responsibility for raising children—and only 42% of recent women HBS grads expect to fill that role.
That disconnect isn’t unprecedented. While only 25% of Gen X women HBS graduates expected their partner’s career to take priority over theirs, 40% ended up in that very situation—and found themselves understandably disappointed.
The competitive implications of this discrepancy are obvious. While some companies have made great strides to become gender neutral when it comes to promoting employees, unconscious biases against women with family responsibilities exist. And the numbers speak for themselves: Only 5% of Fortune 1000 companies are led by women.
Certainly, it’s not impossible for moms to rise the ranks without a stay-at-home spouse. Of those 51 Fortune 1000 women CEOs, 84% have children—and many execs in Fortune’s Most Powerful Women community have equally driven husbands by their sides. YouTube CEO (GOOG) Susan Wojcicki, who is pregnant with her fifth child, is married to a fellow Googler. Phebe Novakovic, the CEO of General Dynamics (GD), is married to Boeing’s (BA) former chief lobbyist. In a display of perhaps the ultimate power couple, John Lundgren is the CEO of Stanley Black & Decker (SWK) and is wife Tamara is the CEO of Schnitzer Steel Industries (SCHN) — both Fortune 500 firms. And Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is hitched to Zachary Bogue, a lawyer-turned-investor-turned-founder who has significant (and self-earned) clout in Silicon Valley.
Yet the majority of those power duos have the financial ability to hire help. The masses are not so lucky—and that, mixed with millennials’ clearly misaligned relationship expectations, requires a larger conversation around the topic.
Without that discussion, many Gen-Y women hoping to rise the ranks may be on the same disappointing climb as the bulk of their predecessors.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Phebe Novakovic’s husband is recently retired.