Trophy Husbands Arm candy? Are you kidding? While their fast-track wives go to work, stay-at-home husbands mind the kids. They deserve a trophy for trading places.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – When Anne Stevens wakes up at 4:15 a.m. to exercise, her husband, Bill, makes coffee and breakfast for her. She leaves the house at 6:15, heading for the firing line of Ford Motor's turnaround effort. As head of North American vehicle operations, she is under severe pressure to reduce costs and raise quality at the 29 manufacturing plants in her division. While she's doing battle, Bill is home tending the gardens, running errands, managing the social calendar, planning the weekend, and playing golf. When Anne gets home, Bill is waiting. Okay, not with her slippers and newspaper and pipe. But he does have dinner on the table. He's capable of a killer beef Wellington, though on weeknights he keeps things simple, with chicken or pasta salad. Although he'd love some scintillating conversation, he usually lets Anne flop in front of Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy! and fall asleep. "We have a good arrangement," says Bill. "Anne works her tail off during the week. The weekends are our time.... I am the domestic executive assistant."
This may seem like an unusual situation--except that a similar day begins at Dawn Lepore's house outside San Francisco. As she dries her hair, husband Ken brings her a cup of coffee and asks if she'd like a banana. Then Ken fixes breakfast for 4-year-old Andrew and gives 5-month-old Elizabeth a bottle. Andrew blows his mom a kiss as she leaves for her job as vice chairman of Charles Schwab.
At the Dublon household in New York's Westchester County, it has always been husband Giora who packed the lunches and took the kids to school. Wife Dina, the CFO of J.P. Morgan Chase, is the spouse who handles tough questions from Wall Street about the bank's exposure to Enron. "My dad has always been my mom," says their 16-year-old son, Gershon, with pride. "He keeps a pretty good house."
Remember that adage, Behind every great man is a great woman? Well, forget it. As corporate women continue their climb up the ladder, the reverse is increasingly true. At Ford, Xerox, Sun, Schwab, Verizon, J.P. Morgan Chase, Coca-Cola--almost everywhere you look in the upper ranks of the FORTUNE 500--it could be the woman wearing the pants and the man minding hearth and home. Call him what you will: househusband, stay-at-home dad, domestic engineer. But credit him with setting aside his own career by dropping out, retiring early, or going part-time so that his wife's career might flourish and their family might thrive. Behind a great woman at work, there is often a great man at home. He is the new trophy husband.
Thirteen years ago, FORTUNE wrote about trophy wives: the young, glamorous, second (or third) wives of prominent CEOs. Their only job was to lunch, party, conspicuously consume, and keep their husbands off Viagra. The men we're talking about carpool the kids, coach the soccer team, pay the bills, pick up the dry cleaning, and fix dinner. Talk about trophy! These guys may be every working woman's definition of trophy.
Nobody has measured how widespread this phenomenon is among well-educated, high-salaried couples. But there is clearly a dramatic shift afoot. When FORTUNE attempted this story five years ago, we had to give up. It was hard to find examples and even harder to get anyone to talk publicly about their choices. Everyone was in the closet. Now, says Doreen Toben, CFO at Verizon, "almost all the senior women [here] have husbands at home." So do many women at Sun Microsystems. Of the 187 participants at FORTUNE's Most Powerful Women in Business Summit last spring, 30% had househusbands. And of the 50 women on this year's list, more than one-third have a husband at home either full- or part-time.
Some would rather discuss their quarterly numbers than their at-home husbands. Anne Mulcahy, who told FORTUNE last year that her retired husband, Joe, helped make it possible for her to do her job as chairman and CEO of Xerox, declined to participate. So did Carly Fiorina, chairman and CEO of Hewlett-Packard. She is very protective of her husband and would say only that "Frank has been a huge source of support. He had a very successful career and has lots of interests outside of me and my career. He has been a rock for me; I am tremendously lucky. To describe him as a stay-at-home husband is not fair to him." Frank Fiorina took early retirement in 1998 as a vice president of AT&T's corporate business unit.
But among the most powerful women--and many other high-level women--this is a red-hot topic. They gossip about it. They marvel at it. They compare notes. They know which colleagues have husbands at home and which do not. They know which are married to doctors: Shelly Lazarus and Meg Whitman. (Doctors travel infrequently and can often set their own hours.) They are envious of women whose husbands have retired. Most of all they debate, How important is it to have a man at home helping you get to the top? Very important, says Dina Dublon. "My spouse would say that I probably have enough drive and ambition that I would have done this even if he weren't there," she says. "But there is no doubt in my mind that the extent to which I can do this is because of his willingness to be at home."
So maybe it's not only a glass ceiling that has kept so few women from reaching the upper tier of corporate America; only 6% of the FORTUNE 500's very top jobs--senior vice president and above--are held by women, according to Catalyst. Maybe it's that not enough of them have the luxury most of their male counterparts have had forever: a spouse at home. A year ago, when Catalyst asked 3,000 women in their mid-20s to mid-30s to name the biggest barriers to women's advancement, 68% cited personal and family responsibilities. That compares with 50% who blamed lack of mentoring, 46% who said lack of experience, and just 45% who cited stereotyping of women's roles and abilities. "A precondition to having more women in positions of power is to have more sharing in the burdens of parenthood," says Dublon. "It is crucial."
Nobody says it's easy. For all the progress women have made in the workforce--and men have made in accepting them there--many people of both sexes are uncomfortable with the outright reversal of gender roles. There is a price to pay for living a life that so defies convention. Women must adjust to the burden men have carried all along: the responsibility of being the primary (or sole) breadwinner. They give up not only precious time with their children but often intimacy too. Even as they struggle with that loss, they get a bad rap: They are bad mothers.
It's even more difficult for men. They get the cold shoulder at the playground and the PTA. They must deal with their own demons as they knock around an empty house. They are always suspect. Everyone wants to know what's wrong with them. Were they fired? Are they losers? If they have nannies--a few of the men we interviewed did; most did not--they are presumed to be freeloaders, members of the leisure class, even when the nanny is enabling them to sneak in some part-time work. All those annoying but familiar two-career tensions--who stays late at the office, whose turn it is to travel--are supplanted by a strange new set of conversations. Is the kitchen your domain or mine? How much TV is too much for the kids? How much mold in the fridge before it's okay to complain? "I feel like we are in uncharted waters almost every day," says one executive who wanted to speak for the record but whose husband did not. "There is a [lot of money] for a therapist in some of these relationships."
That's why even Sheila Wellington, the president of Catalyst, believes there will never be a large number of households with go-to-work wives and stay-at-home husbands. "Values have changed, and all kinds of options have opened up," she says. "Will there ever be a revolution in this area? I doubt it. Some things are hard-wired into a society." We also won't see more men at home for the same reason we see fewer women there: Many families need two incomes.
Still, as a critical mass of corporate couples get further up the ladder, some are finding it's just too hard on their children to continue the dual-career high-wire act. Ursula Burns, an SVP at Xerox, says more and more women are wrestling with gender roles as high-powered jobs come within their reach. Anne Stevens says she knows of at least 20 women in her division at Ford whose husbands are home. At Coca-Cola, Madeline Hamill, vice president of worldwide strategic planning, says women come to her seeking advice. Will her arrangement work for them? (Her husband Paul quit work five years ago to stay home with their twins, now 10.)
These women are not who you think they are. Yes, they are tough and ambitious and competitive. But they are not ball-busters. And their husbands are not wimps. They are physicists, lawyers, engineers, marketing executives, and Navy pilots. These couples usually started out in even-steven, dual-career marriages. Most never imagined such role reversal; in fact, many of the women assumed their careers would take a back seat to their husbands'. "There was nothing in our setup that was in any way unconventional," says Dina Dublon. Twenty-five years ago she came to the U.S. from Israel as "the wife of" her physicist husband, who had a fellowship at Harvard. She took a leave of absence from her job in Israel and decided to pursue an MBA only out of boredom. "I had come to the States following my husband's career," she says.
Sarah Fitts, 38, a partner at New York City law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, had planned to do the same. After her husband, Robert, 36, received his Ph.D. from Brown, she figured she would follow him to a college town where he would teach and she'd "hang a shingle and do house closings." Kathleen Holmgren's career was also eclipsed by her husband's. After she and Bob both graduated with honors in industrial engineering, they earned MBAs, he from Berkeley, she from Stanford. Bob got the blue-chip job--in brand management at Clorox--while Kathleen, a high school homecoming queen, went to a little company nobody had heard of: Sun Microsystems.
As they all pursued their careers, society was changing. Marriage became more of a partnership. Women's work gained approval. Husbands began doing more chores around the house--9.5 hours in 1995, vs. 4.7 in 1965, according to John Robinson, a time-use expert at the University of Maryland. They also became more involved with their children; in a true sign of the times, Koala, the company that makes diaper-changing tables for public bathrooms, says its products are now as likely to be found in men's rooms as in ladies' rooms. The pay gap between men and women, though still considerable, was narrowing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in 2001 earned 76% as much as men, on average, vs. 63% in 1979. Many women began outearning their husbands. In a 1996 Catalyst survey of 461 executive women, 75% earned more than their husbands. Serendipity, timing, and earnings potential influenced the choices of these two-income couples far more than gender.
Giora Dublon was a Ph.D. physicist and a painter. Two years after the Dublons' daughter was born 19 years ago, Giora, 55, gave up physics to paint and spend time with her. "It was a question of who had the potential for greater financial compensation and who had greater interest in pursuing a career," says Dina, 49. "It was a question of making a choice that was not biased by gender about who is interested in doing what, and can we afford it."
By the time Rob Fitts completed a Ph.D. in 1995, his wife was on a fast track to partnership at Debevoise. "It just seemed silly to ask her to go to Potsdam, N.Y., for me to take a poor-paying teaching job," says Fitts, who got a job as an archaeologist. But because Sarah worked grueling hours--earning a salary that dwarfed his--he left to spend more time with their two young boys; eventually he started a web-based Japanese baseball card business.
A conventional marriage made no sense for Bob and Kathleen Holmgren either. Although his marketing career was thriving, Kathleen, 44, was a true star at Sun, where she had been given founder's stock. (She is now SVP in charge of network storage.) His promotions would have relocated the family and derailed her. Three children later, Bob, also 44, became an at-home dad.
The higher you go in corporate America, the harder it is to keep two high-octane careers on track, especially when you have children. It is not impossible. Nancy Peretsman, a managing director at Allen & Co., does it; her husband, Bob Scully, is a vice chairman of Morgan Stanley. Edmund Toben, the CIO at Colgate, is the husband of Verizon's Doreen Toben. For a long time, Pat and Steve Sueltz managed too. For 20 years both had bigtime careers at IBM, where Steve was a financial VP and Pat a software development VP. They had one daughter in college, another in fourth grade, a newly renovated home, and a great family balance when Pat, 50, got a job offer from Sun three years ago. Steve, 49, encouraged her to take it, saying, "How can we expect our daughters to be all they want to be if their mother isn't all she wants to be?"
When they moved to California, Steve had no trouble finding a finance job at Siebel Systems. "New company. New job. Everything's booming," he says. But Pat was never home during the week, and Steve was rarely home on weekends. "We were losing Kathleen [now in seventh grade]," says Pat. "She was miserable." The Sueltzes spent several months debating what to do. Could one or the other get home earlier? Should one or the other switch jobs? Should Steve become a consultant to give him more flexibility? Ultimately, Steve made the decision to stay home--despite his pedigrees (Phi Beta Kappa at Occidental, Stanford MBA), despite his career success. It was Pat who had gotten the big job. Pat recalls the note Steve received from his mentor Jerry York, the former CFO of IBM. "It said, 'Steve, you are one of the smartest men I know. This is a very brave thing for you to do.' "
The problem is, these guys are stepping into no man's land. Literally. The sorority of soccer moms can be every bit as formidable and exclusionary as the good ol' boys network at work. "I never get invited over to coffee," says Sueltz. "Forget about it. It isn't going to happen." The men get funny looks at Safeway at 10 a.m. Their presence is a disconnect at the PTA. At the playground they hear lots of unsolicited advice. Robert Fitts, the archaeologist, recalls one mother admonishing him because his son wasn't wearing a sweater. "Some of it is truly good-natured, and some of it is very snippy," he says. It has an undercurrent of "Who do you think you are?... You don't belong here." One at-home man finally figured out why his male neighbors treated him with such suspicion. "They thought I was going to steal their wives," he says.
Dennis Gavin, 47, whose wife, Eva Sage-Gavin, 44, is an SVP at Sun, will never forget the knock on his door shortly after they moved to Orange County, Calif. The Welcome Wagon lady wanted to speak to the woman of the house. "Well, you're looking at him," said Gavin, the self-appointed "trailing spouse," who has handled every detail of the couple's six moves and at the time was home with their newborn. "No, seriously," she replied. (Gavin is now back at work managing a law firm.)
"No, seriously" is the common comeback to these unconventional husbands. Everywhere they go, they encounter disbelief, confusion, and wariness. "Are you disabled?" "Are you retired?" people constantly wonder. Anne Garnick, a sales VP at Schwab whose husband stays home with their two daughters, tells about the time another mother rushed up to greet her, saying, "I'm so glad to meet you. I thought you had passed away."
The transition is easier for some than others. Dawn Lepore's husband, Ken, 55, recalls the day his boss at Schwab delivered good news: Dawn, 48, would be promoted. The bad news was that Ken would now be reporting to her, which was against company policy. He had to leave, but he handled it well, since in his heart he knew he was a techie, not a manager. "It was kind of like the Peter Principle," says Ken. "You get promoted up to your inability. Well, there I was. I wasn't doing what I wanted. I wasn't very good at it anyway. It wasn't fun." He took a job at Visa, where he spent 12 hours a day working with computers. When he retired early after son Andrew was born four years ago, the hardest part wasn't giving up a title or a paycheck but the work he loved.
Men usually find it easier to reverse roles if they've firmly established their own careers. Lloyd Bean was a 14-year veteran of Xerox when Ursula Burns arrived at the company. After they married, his wife quickly surpassed him. How did Bean, 63, deal with her rapid ascent? "I was rooting for her," he says. "There's no way you could try to hold somebody like that back." Bean, a respected researcher with a string of patents to his name, retired early last year to spend more time with their two children, 13 and 9, as his wife's duties and travel expanded. "Wherever we go, people know I'm a vice president and he's a scientist," says Burns, 44. "I think the cover here is that he's the brain guy."
Sometimes who stays home is a matter of temperament. Bill Stevens, 57, is more laid-back than Anne, 53; he has a dry sense of humor and a passionate love of golf. As Anne's career took her to New Jersey, Texas, England, and finally to Dearborn, Mich., Bill, also an engineer, was the one who stayed behind so that their two children (now grown) could finish the school year. "I use the Slinky analogy," he laughs. "There goes Anne, here comes Bill." Early in their marriage the Stevenses were very competitive with each other. But at some point, says Bill, "I realized this wasn't a rivalry, it was a partnership." In 1999 he retired. At company parties Bill talks golf with the men and shares household tips with the women. What do they ask about most? "Beef Wellington," he says.
Staying home is harder for men who feel they don't have much choice. Terry Brennan, 54, is a systems engineer who was laid off when his company was acquired last year. His wife, Susan, 40, is a director of manufacturing at Ford who works for Anne Stevens. They have a 3-year-old son and a baby due any day. Since Susan's job requires weekly travel, it made sense for Terry to stay home instead of looking for a job in an ailing industry. He has seen friends move around the country for jobs only to lose them again. He badly wants to do the right thing for his family. Still, staying home is a jolt to his ego. When Susan explains Terry's new role to friends who ask about it, he sometimes won't speak to her for hours. "It's taking a while to adjust to this," he admits. "I've been programmed all my life to be a provider. I'm becoming a domestic god." Terry, who grew up with four brothers, says, "My father still doesn't know a washer from a dryer."
The resolve of even the most committed dads can be sorely tested by young children. They discover what women have known all along: Raising kids is a difficult, often thankless job. Brian Shanahan, 41, wistfully recalls his days at Cummins West, where he was an owner and vice president of the Cummins engine distributor. "Your employees listen to you," says Shanahan, who stays home with Casey, 6, and Riley, 4, while Lauri, 39, works as general counsel at Gap. "These two little girls--they don't work for me. I work for them. I can't fire them." He gets frustrated by his girls' many wardrobe changes as he's trying to hurry them out the door. When they want him to play Barbie, he asks if they can play Barbie with cars.
It should be no surprise that the same things that long drove housewives crazy also plague househusbands: isolation, lack of intellectual stimulation, lack of appreciation. "If you have too much time to think about it, you can eat yourself alive," says Shanahan. He was nearly accosted by a guy at a carwash when the man realized they were fellow stay-at-home dads. "He was so excited he practically jumped out of his skin," says Shanahan. So the men keep busy. Steve Sueltz volunteers at Kathleen's school and at a senior citizen center. Lepore's husband does some consulting and builds websites for his son's school and the family's church.
Just to complete the role reversal, picture this: The women come home from work, and the men--desperate for adult company--want to talk. It's the wives who are too tired. "Sometimes I say, Can we just put a pin in it?" says Anne Stevens, and then Bill knows to save it for the weekend. After her children arrived, Dawn Lepore wanted to spend her weekends away from Schwab hanging out with her family. But after being home all week, her husband was stir-crazy. Now they have a standing date on Saturday nights.
The women have their own adjustments to make. Now they know how it feels to be the only one with a paycheck. "I really had to get my head around that," says Pat Sueltz. "I got nervous." Adds Lauri Shanahan: "I remember feeling, 'Oh, my God. I'm the only one.' I always like having options even if I never exercise them." By far the hardest adjustment for most women is giving up time with their children. Like a lot of traditional fathers, many of these mothers are weekend parents. They are grateful for--but also a little jealous of--the close relationships their husbands have with the kids. "In life we are always making tradeoffs, and to some extent I have made tradeoffs," says Dina Dublon at J.P. Morgan Chase. "I have spent less time with the children. There is an intimacy in the relationship between my daughter and my husband that, in part, is driven by the fact that they have spent more time together. This is some of the price you pay for spending more time away from home. I have made choices and tradeoffs over the last 20 years, and I have at times felt good about it and at times sad about it."
Sometimes, says Lepore, she calls home to see how everybody's doing. Her husband replies, "We're cuddled up watching a video," and she thinks, "I'm going to a budget meeting." She admits to a pang when Andrew calls for his father in the middle of the night. "But on the other hand, I think about how lucky Andrew is to be so close to his dad." When Sarah Fitts leaves for her law firm while husband Rob and 1-year-old Simon are playing cars, she occasionally thinks, "Maybe I did get the short end of the stick. But it doesn't really matter. It's a family unit, and it's how we all go together."
And it sure does relieve the strain on a family. There is laughter again in the Sueltz family, where Steve handles everything from Christmas cards to cleaning toilets. "I have my chores," he says. "Kathleen has her chores." When Pat says she has chores, Steve shakes his head. "Pat has no chores," he teases. "I'm trying to get her to put her clothes in the hamper."
The kids are clearly the biggest beneficiaries. When Kathleen first learned her dad would stay home, she was aghast: "What will I tell people you do?" she asked. Now her grades have improved, her spirit is back, and Steve is a hit with her classmates, who call him for help with math homework. Gershon Dublon is delighted that his dad still packs a brown-bag lunch for him; not many of his friends eat homemade lunches. "I came out on top," he says. These kids are proud of their career moms too. The Stevenses' daughter, Jennifer Zechman, recalls that her mother dropped everything to help when Jennifer had her first baby. For two weeks Anne cleaned, cooked, and did laundry, much to Jennifer's amusement. "I'm like, 'Who are you?' " Zechman laughed. "She never does those things."
The dividends for these working wives--peace of mind, no distractions, the ability to focus single-mindedly on work--are precisely the ones their male counterparts have always had. Ursula Burns can apply her energy to Xerox because husband Lloyd has applied his analytical skill to creating a family flow chart: grocery shopping, fixing the roof, carpooling, doctor's appointments, music lessons--the megabytes of daily minutiae. Then, of course, he executes all these tasks. When Ursula arrives home, she quizzes the kids on their homework, but she never has to worry about the trumpet that got left behind. Without this division of labor, she says, "forget it. It would be impossible for me. Impossible."
That theme echoes all through the corps of executive women. Lauri Shanahan doesn't fret about who's driving her daughters to play dates and piano lessons. "I'm more balanced and productive because I know they are with Brian," she says. "It makes a huge difference." Another executive mom agrees: "I can make multibillion-dollar decisions at the bank far better than I can face chaos at home--like handing off children in airports, where if one thing goes wrong, the whole thing blows up." Adds Sarah Fitts, the Debevoise lawyer: "My life is so much more manageable. A lot of the stress is worrying about things that might happen but actually don't," such as whether Simon's early-morning crankiness will mean that dreaded midday trip to the pediatrician's office. "I don't know how people with two full-time, unforgiving careers manage the small stuff," says Fitts.
For better or worse, it is possible for these executives to be on call 24/7--which is still what it takes to get to the top at most companies. If Giora Dublon had not been home with the children, says Dina, she could not have stayed at all those bank meetings that were supposed to end at 7 p.m. but lasted until ten. "Would I have reached the same position if I had gone home? That's a question I can't answer," says Dina. "But one of the criteria was your willingness to stay and do whatever needed to get done, irrespective of anything else in your life."
The household arrangements these couples have created are simultaneously radical and conservative. Yes, the men and women have traded places. But they have divided their labor quite traditionally. There is a back-to-the-future quality to their domestic relations, a reversion to notions of work and home right out of the 1950s. Except for one big difference: The 21st-century organization man could very easily be a woman. And the corporate wife could be a husband.