Unlike many others, Christine Ellison has risen to the top of her field while still being able to celebrate Mother's Day. But her success had more to do with equality at home than equality at work: She put in the long hours required to earn and maintain a coveted partnership in a national accounting firm while her husband stayed home with their child.
Unintentionally, Ms. Ellison was acting out a template that some feminist thinkers argue is the only way to restart the stalled progress of women in society in general: Elite women must change not just workplaces, but also their intimate lives, in order to break the "domestic glass ceiling" -- the family duties that explain why women are vastly underrepresented in the most powerful positions.
How? Don't study liberal arts in college, they say. Hesitate to have more than one child. And marry "beneath" you, taking a spouse with lower earning potential so that yours never will be the career it "makes sense" to compromise.
Ms. Ellison was already up for the partnership when she first became pregnant. So she worked from home for four months, and then her husband, an electrical engineer named Jim Fulsang, took six months' parental leave from his job. In the end, the pair decided that Mr. Fulsang would quit to be with baby Michael in their Woodbridge, Ont., home.
"We said we'd see how things went," says Ms. Ellison, 39.
At her income level, the couple have the luxury of not having to worry about Prime Minister Stephen Harper's much-debated new child-care policies. If and when her husband returns to work, they easily can afford child care. But with the other parent not working, Ms. Ellison says, she is able to go full tilt at the office.
"I've invested so much in my education and career," she says. "Anybody who knows us well knows that our decision is financially logical. And he's more suited to be at home."
Of course, most Canadian women work outside the home. Statistics Canada reported last week that a new high of 58 per cent of all women of working age have jobs. But of the new jobs females snapped up last year, 74 per cent went to women over the age of 45 -- who are less likely to have child-care issues than younger women.
To further dampen the good news, those women still earn less than men. And the wage gap, which had been closing steadily from the 1970s to the early 1990s, now seems stuck in place. In 2003, the average woman made $24,800, 64 per cent of the average man's $39,100 -- a difference attributable, according to Statscan, to men working longer hours and women fitting schedules around family.
Alberta makes for a telling, if extreme, case study. In that booming economy, Statscan documented an accelerating drop in the number of women with children under 6 who work outside the home, compared with the rest of Canada. Many of those women are leaving the lucrative oil patch to be stay-at-home moms, presumably because they can afford to live on one salary -- the husband's.
According to Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University, in Canada a dual-income family makes about $58,000 and the typical father in a traditional male-breadwinner family makes $62,000: "In other words, that one guy makes more than two people."
These trends mean fewer women in the highest reaches of business, government or law. They get the message that if you are truly ambitious, you must give up on family altogether. And by reinforcing social attitudes that say women don't belong on top, this lowers the status of all women.
Or at least that's how controversial feminist legal scholar Linda Hirshman sees it. Ms. Hirshman is the author of a now-infamous essay in the liberal U.S. journal The American Prospect called "Homeward Bound," which explored the "opt-out" trend among highly educated, elite women. She is developing the thesis into an upcoming book, called Get Back to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.