York prof finds female executives are backed by supportive husbands

A study co-authored by a York University professor has found that female executives are backed by emotionally supportive husbands more often than previous research would suggest.

Souha Ezzedeen, a professor in the School of Administrative Studies, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, conducted detailed interviews with senior and executive-level women concerning spousal behaviours that impact their ability to juggle the demands of career and family life. The study was begun at the University of Penn State Harrisburg and drew participants exclusively from the United States.

"We found that the husbands of career-oriented women are taking on more and more of the behaviours traditionally thought to be mainly feminine," Ezzedeen says. "Primarily, they’re providing emotional support to their wives – despite evidence that they are not socialized to do so."

Left: Women rank emotional support from their husbands as their biggest enabler of success in work and family life

According to Ezzedeen’s research, women rank this emotional support as the biggest enabler of their success in work and family life. Their husbands’ empathic listening, especially during high-stress episodes, was particularly valued.

Esteem support – bolstering of a spouse’s belief in her own abilities – was ranked next in importance, followed by help with family members and career support.

Dead last? Help around the house.

"It seems that chores still get divided along gender lines, so that women more often end up doing the grocery shopping, meal planning and cooking, and men perform more of the traditional masculine chores that involve less time and organization," says Ezzedeen.

"Women see it as, ‘oh, you took out the trash, you mowed the lawn when you had time – big deal, compared with the organizational nightmare I’ve got on my hands’," says Ezzedeen.

Ezzedeen also found that husbands of high-achieving women are making changes to their own careers and lifestyle in order to accommodate their wives, including relocating, restricting their work and staying at home with children. These findings contradict earlier research showing that men are dominant in family decision-making.

However, the study revealed that some things really haven’t changed.

"Above and beyond insufficient help with and lack of initiative toward household and child care matters (an already well-documented phenomenon for married working women), the women in our study reported that their spouses sometimes failed to empathically listen to their concerns and instead commanded them and wanted to fight their battles for them," Ezzedeen says.

She points to the frequently-cited example of ‘white knight’ syndrome, when a husband insists on taking control of a problem and solving it on his terms.

In addition, the study reports that an element of intentional harm appears when husbands embarrass their wives publicly, refuse to accompany them to functions, are resentful of their success, and continue to hold them accountable for hearth and home when their career demands are clearly inordinate.

The study targeted married heterosexual women, however, out of the 20 women interviewed, two were divorced.

"Because these women had separated from their husbands for lack of social support, they were positioned to speak of supportive and unsupportive behaviours and the connections among spousal support, marital satisfaction and career advancement," Ezzedeen says.

The study was co-authored by Ezzedeen’s former Penn State MBA student, Kristen Grossnickle Ritchey. It will appear in the September issue of the Journal of Family Issues.