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I'm a professional dad who "leaned out" to support my wife's career
If we want an equal society, we need to get more comfortable with unequal marriages.
In 2016, I started to feel I was struggling at work.
Until then, my journalism career had been going well. I was one of five Washington Post writers who followed Ezra Klein to Vox Media to help start Vox.com in 2014. The next year, Vox gave me a positive performance evaluation and a 14 percent raise.
But in the fall of 2016, things started to go downhill. My editor started telling me I was too slow to cover important stories on my beat. In early 2017, after a management reshuffle, editors started asking me to change my beat altogether. Instead of writing about broad trends in technology and the economy, they wanted me to become a Silicon Valley beat reporter.
I didn’t like this idea, in part because I had no idea how to get Silicon Valley scoops from my desk in Washington DC. Amid escalating tensions, I reluctantly started looking for a new job. I wound up back at Ars Technica, the publication I’d worked for before I went to the Washington Post.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what had gone wrong. But in retrospect, I think an important factor was the birth of my first child in November 2015.
On paper, Vox’s policies were very family-friendly. As a new father, I was offered 12 weeks of paternity leave. I had unlimited vacation time and no one ever gave me a hard time about leaving early for daycare pickups.
Still, Vox had a workaholic culture. Almost everyone—including me pre-baby—worked a lot more than 40 hours per week. Back then I’d spend the workday writing short pieces about breaking news and interviewing sources for longer pieces. Then I’d spend evenings and weekends writing those longer stories.
Our baby’s arrival changed everything. My wife is a doctor who frequently works nights and weekends, so my nights and weekends were usually devoted to child care. I managed to keep up with the piece-a-day pace Vox expected of all its writers, but I could no longer spend my off hours doing in-depth research and writing. The quality of my work suffered as a result.
In the five years since I left Vox, I’ve increasingly “leaned out” of my career. Around the time our second child was born, I asked Ars Technica to cut my hours by 10 percent. Then last year, shortly after the birth of our third child, I quit Ars to start Full Stack Economics. It meant a big pay cut, but being self-employed gives me unbeatable flexibility.
In recent years, I’ve done the bulk of the child care, laundry, dishes, and other domestic chores. This has enabled my wife to work 50 to 60 hours per week and make three to four times as much as me.
I’m far from the first parent to tell a story like this. But most of the time it’s the mom who steps back from her career when a baby arrives. Because of that, some feminists seem skeptical of the very concept of an unequal division of labor within households.
But I think that’s a mistake. If we want a more equal society—and I do—we’re going to need more households like mine. Households where mom is the main breadwinner and dad does more than half the child care.
The problem—and opportunity—of greedy jobs
In her 2021 book Career and Family, the Harvard economist Claudia Goldin introduces a concept that’s crucial for thinking about tradeoffs between work and child care: the greedy job. A greedy job is a job where workers who work long and irregular hours earn significantly more per hour than workers with less demanding schedules.
Journalism can be a greedy profession because success begets success. Each time a reporter gets a scoop, they become better known on their beat. Sources will be more likely to give them their next scoop. This means that when reporters put in more hours, they don’t just produce more stories, they tend to produce better stories. Over time, that can raise their profile and dramatically increase their earning power.
News also has a tendency to happen at inconvenient times and places. Reporters who can cover breaking news on nights or weekends—or even hop on an airplane to visit the scene of a big story—have an edge over those whose family obligations preclude them from doing this.
Medicine is often a greedy profession too. Research has found that surgeons who perform more surgeries produce better outcomes for patients. And the practice of medicine sometimes happens at inconvenient times. As an OB/GYN physician, my wife spends about one night a week at the hospital delivering babies. Doctors who work long and irregular hours can earn a lot more than those who are limited to a nine-to-five schedule.
Similar analysis applies in elite professions like law, finance, and management. People who are willing and able to work long and irregular hours often wind up making a lot more. As a result, it sometimes makes financial sense for parents to specialize—for one parent (in our case, my wife) to focus on their career, while the other parent (me) prioritizes the needs of their children.
Goldin seems deeply skeptical of this approach. She writes that when greedy jobs lead to a substantial gap in earnings potential, “the average couple will opt for higher family income and, often to their mutual frustration and sorrow, will thereby be forced to throw gender equality and couple equity under the bus.”
I don’t feel “frustration and sorrow” about the unequal division of labor within my own household. Quite the contrary! I think that if we want to achieve gender equality at a society level, we need a lot more women to reach the top of their professions—to become CEOs, law firm partners, members of Congress, and so forth. If these ambitious women also want to have children—and most women do—they’re going to have to do what ambitious men have always done: find partners willing to do a lot more than half the child care.
Taking time off for kids can be expensive
In a 2010 study, Goldin and two co-authors demonstrated how greedy jobs, plus an unequal division of child care responsibilities, have impacted the earnings of women over time.
The economists surveyed women who graduated from Chicago’s business school between 1990 and 2006. Each woman provided Goldin and her collaborators with historical data on their jobs and earnings since graduation (earnings between years 10 and 16 were combined into a single 13-year bucket).
As you can see from the red bars, the gender earnings gap grew larger each year covered by the survey. In their first jobs after graduating from Chicago’s Booth School of Business, women made about 95 cents for each dollar their male classmates made. By the end of the survey period, women made only 64 cents for every male dollar.
But strikingly, the same pattern didn’t hold among women without kids. These women made roughly 10 percent less than their male colleagues right after graduation, and the gap was about the same a decade later.
In Career and Family, Goldin writes that “almost all the decrease in the ratio of annual earnings during the first decade or so after MBA receipt is because female MBAs take more time off and work fewer hours than do male MBAs.” Women who had graduated from business school 10 to 16 years prior to the survey had spent an average of 1.05 years out of the workforce, compared to just 0.12 years for their male classmates. Twenty-two percent of these women were working fewer than 40 hours per week at the time of the survey, compared to only 4 percent of their male peers.
And motherhood seems to be the main factor driving these changes. Across the survey, women with children worked 24 percent fewer hours than the average man, while women without children only worked 3.3 percent fewer hours.
It’s not just about workplace stigma
In her 2015 book Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter argued that mothers earn less because many workplaces have an irrational stigma against workers who prioritize work-life balance.
“Workers who work from home, or even take time off, do not lose IQ points,” Slaughter wrote. “Their choice to put family alongside or even ahead of career advancement does not necessarily affect the quality of their work, even if it reduces the quantity.”
This is a comforting line of argument, but Goldin’s concept of greedy work helps to explain why it’s not necessarily true. In a number of elite professions a lower quantity of work really does translate to lower quality.
I’m all for companies taking steps to promote work-life balance. Goldin, for example, points out that the consolidation of pharmacies under major brands like CVS and Walgreens enables pharmacists to earn at the same rate whether they work 20, 40, or 60 hours per week.
But I’m skeptical that reforms like this can eliminate the greediness of elite professions like law, medicine, finance, or management. At one point in her book, Slaughter mentioned Marillyn Hewson, who served as CEO of Lockheed Martin from 2013 to 2020. Slaughter wrote that Hewson held 18 different positions during her career at Lockheed Martin, including “senior positions in Lockheed's aeronautics and internal auditing divisions, requiring her to move around the country from Georgia to Texas to Maryland to New York. Overall, she moved eight times on her way to the C-suite.”
Hewson did all this while raising two boys thanks to the support of her husband James. When their boys were three and six, respectively, Marillyn took a new role at Lockheed Martin that required the family to relocate from Georgia to Texas. James cut his own career short to focus on raising their boys.
“He became the at-home dad,” Hewson said in a 2018 interview. “He was the coach. He was the scout leader. He went on the field trips, and he managed that because I traveled a lot in my job.”
What should we think about this story? You could say that Hewson was the victim of pointless hazing—that she could have been just as effective in her career without moving around so much. But that doesn’t seem right. I bet spending time in Texas and Georgia provided Hewson with knowledge and insight about the company she wouldn’t have gotten if she’d spent her whole career at Lockheed’s Maryland headquarters. And I bet this knowledge made her a better CEO.
Or you might argue that corporate executives should be discouraged from pursuing such grueling and peripatetic careers even if they make them better leaders, because work-life balance and gender equity are more important.
But I don’t think that makes sense either. Tens of thousands of people depend on Lockheed Martin for their livelihoods. If Hewson’s personal sacrifices early in her career make her a better CEO—even slightly—a lot of people benefit from that.
Moreover, there are always going to be some couples where men prioritize their careers and women focus on child care. If ambitious women want to compete on a level playing field, they are going to need the same advantages the ambitious men enjoy—including partners like James Hewson who enable them to focus on their careers.
The feminist case for leaning out
Of course, many women find it difficult to find husbands like that. Slaughter’s book argues that a big reason is social stigma. She cites a 1987 book called Successful Women, Angry Men in which the author examines the marriages of women who out-earn their husbands. Apparently, women’s career success often led to conflict with their husbands, who felt humiliated at losing their traditional breadwinner status. Writing 28 years later, Slaughter argued that little had changed.
Personally, I’ve never felt humiliated about the fact that my wife out-earns me. But I have no doubt that lingering sexist attitudes are a significant reason few men seem interested in playing a supporting role in their wives’ careers.
At the same time, I think it would be helpful for feminists to be more enthusiastic about couples that go beyond strict equality and flip conventional gender roles.
When I asked Goldin about this in a recent interview, she was far from enthusiastic. She warned that prioritizing one partner’s career would lead to unequal power within marriages.
“When you have outside options, your bargaining power is a lot higher,” Goldin told me. The higher-earning partner would have more influence on a wide range of topics, including “what vacations we take, what car we buy, who scrubs the floor.”
Goldin lived through the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, when laws and social norms surrounding divorce changed rapidly. In the 1950s, it was common for middle-class women to drop out of college when they got married and then start having babies soon afterwards. If these women became divorced a decade or two later, it left them in an extremely vulnerable position, since they had little to no experience in the workplace.
I don’t think this is such a major concern today—especially not for educated professionals like me. I was in the workforce for more than 15 years before our first child was born. And in recent years I’ve only cut back my hours—I haven’t dropped out of the workforce altogether. So I have little doubt I could support myself financially if I needed to.
Domestic and community work is actually important
Meanwhile, I worry that the feminist focus on couple equity has had the perverse result of devaluing domestic work traditionally performed by women. Discussion of these issues frequently portrays domestic work as both dull and unimportant, so it’s little wonder that educated men are reluctant to do it.
But domestic activities really are important. In his 2000 classic Bowling Alone, the sociologist Robert Putnam documented that participation in a wide range of social institutions—from youth sports to parent-teacher associations to political campaigns—had been in decline for decades.
One of the possible causes Putnam identifies is changing gender roles. In the 1950s, sexist laws and attitudes locked many married women out of the labor force, which left them with a lot of time to volunteer in their local communities. As women moved into the workforce between 1970 and 2000, fewer and fewer people had spare time to do this kind of unpaid work.
Traditionalists argue that the feminist revolution has gone too far, and we need to get more women back into the home. But I think it makes more sense to take the opposite perspective: that the feminist revolution is only half finished. We’ve done a lot to encourage women to pursue careers in traditionally male professions. But we still don’t do enough to encourage men to do traditionally female work in our homes and communities.
That’s important not only because it enables their partners to succeed at work, but also because this kind of work is important in its own right.