Skip to main content

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.

If you want to have sex and children with men, as well as work in interesting jobs where you may occasionally wield real social power, "prepare yourself for good work, treat work seriously, and don't put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry," she wrote.

But her hot-button summary of the strategy has left liberal stay-at-home moms up in arms and has conservative pundits wringing their hands with glee: Marry someone with a less-intense career than yours (or else so much younger or older that they don't face the same pressures). And beware that second baby, who often marks a tipping point -- as the doubled cost of child care nears the level of the lower-paid spouse's salary, logic says that, well, the wife stays home.

Ms. Hirshman's subtitle raised hackles too: " 'Choice Feminism' claims that staying home with the kids is just one more feminist option. Funny that most men rarely make the same 'choice.' Exactly what kind of choice is that?"

She argues that while strides have been made in the workplace, the patriarchal structure of the home has remained virtually intact -- a domestic glass ceiling.

To illustrate the point, Ms. Hirshman studied three consecutive Sunday New York Times wedding announcements from 1996. She found that by last year, 90 per cent of those brides were moms and 85 per cent of them had traded their careers as doctors, lawyers, editors and executives to stay home. Among the grooms, not a single man was a stay-at-home dad. None had even taken a parental leave.

No wonder Ms. Hirshman suggests marrying someone with "less social power" as the ultimate safe bet -- although she does allow for picking a mate with an "ideological commitment to gender equality."

Canadian-born magazine publishing magnate Bonnie Fuller might agree. Her stay-at-home architect husband, Michael Fuller, has stuck around for more than two decades and four children while Ms. Fuller made her passion for her career her first priority.

In her memoir, The Joys of Much Too Much, she writes that "the most fulfilling path in life involves discovering your passion, then finding the career that allows you to express that passion, then layering in love and family."

Prof. Duxbury objects that the likes of Ms. Fuller and Ms. Hirshman are talking only about the elite: "They're princesses anyway. Why do we care about what the princesses are doing?"

But Ms. Hirshman has an answer to that: "Elites supply the labour for the decision-making classes -- the senators, the newspaper editors, the research scientists, the entrepreneurs, the policy-makers, and the policy wonks."

If the ruling class is overwhelmingly male, she continues, the rulers will make mistakes that benefit males, whether from ignorance or indifference. What's more, she has said, society as a whole suffers from the "gender brain drain" of women's skills and perspectives.

There are also less politicized cases to be made for Ms. Hirshman's general point -- perhaps the strongest being what happens to mothers who have given up their careers in the event of divorce.

Just ask Terry Martin Hekker. In 1979, she wrote a book extolling the virtues of housewifery, called Ever Since Adam and Eve. But recently she wrote an essay called "Paradise Lost (Domestic Division)," relating how she plunged into emotional and financial horror after being served with divorce papers on her 40th wedding anniversary.

"I read about the young mothers of today -- educated, employed, self-sufficient -- who drop out of the work force when they have children, and I worry and wonder," she wrote in The New York Times. "Perhaps it is the right choice for them. Maybe they'll be fine. But the fragility of modern marriage suggests that at least half of them might not be."

There is a move to quantify a housewife's value. A recent study by suggested that if a full-time housewife were paid, she would be making more than $134,000 (U.S.) a year, taking into account hours spent housekeeping, cleaning and cooking as well as child care. Still, one of Ms. Hekker's realizations is particularly chilling: "For a divorced mother, the harsh reality is that the work for which you do get paid is the only work that will keep you afloat."

Prof. Duxbury says that by focusing on the politics of the family, Ms. Hirshman unwittingly lets the patriarchal corporate world off the hook: "She's only talking about half the problem," she says. "We have to make it so women can have a meaningful life at home and a job."

A job, yes, but perhaps never the top jobs. Ms. Hirshman would point out that it's difficult to imagine workplaces so different that CEOs and law partners would not work extended hours.

In such a world, she lays it harshly on the line: "Women must take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions."

The debate is about more than which camp is making the happier or more secure choice. Ms. Hirshman is asking whether, if highly educated women continue to abandon their posts, the small number of Fortune 500 CEOs -- and only one, short-tenured female prime minister of Canada -- now represents the status quo in perpetuity. And do women forfeit the right to bitch about the lack of political representation if they don't step up to the plate?

As you may imagine, well-off, educated stay-at-home moms don't take kindly to the implication that they are betraying womankind. Many of them dwell in the high-traffic Internet zone in which "mommy bloggers" write about their experiences and philosophies of motherhood. Unsurprisingly, few of them are fans of Ms. Hirshman.

Some of her foes feel the architecture of individual families is off limits to feminist analysis. In an on-line quarrel on author Miriam Peskowitz's blog, Ms. Hirshman wrote that in an interview with her, Ms. Peskowitz allowed that violence in the family was worthy of review, but nothing else.

"So it's not that Peskowitz thinks the private family is immune from moral analysis; she just thinks the only immoral thing you can do within a family is hit someone. I disagree," Ms. Hirshman wrote. "I think -- and can defend the opinion -- that perpetuating hierarchy with women on the bottom by psychological, ideological, economic or other means is immoral whether it occurs in the family or on the pages of The New York Times.

"So I don't blog on about my roofer or my morning sickness or whatever qualifies as sincere feminism in the weird space the Internet creates. But if you quit your job because you were living eight hours from good academic work when your first child came, I will be the one who will ask 'Who decided to move there?' "

Jennifer Lawrence, 34, defended her choice to stay home on the Toronto-based

"Gosh. It's all so very bleak," she wrote. "The only way for women to be feminist is to be market-driven, work-oriented and treat marriage as an economic decision -- the Feminism-as-Gordon-Gekko philosophy, I guess."

Ms. Lawrence has an MBA in finance, and husband in the same field who is chugging along in his career. Ms. Lawrence left her post in a large bank, first for work in the non-profit sector, then to raise her two children. She is exactly the demographic Ms. Hirshman admonished for dropping the feminist baton.

"For me, one of the exercises of feminism is to challenge everything," Ms. Lawrence says in an interview. "It's true, we want policy-makers and elected leaders to be women and typically leaders have come out of law or business -- maybe that needs to be challenged."

She argues that educated, politically engaged women are operating in "shades of grey" -- "mommy bloggers" writing on-line, "mompreneurs" running businesses such as jewellery making out of their homes, and bartering among themselves.

"It's not that women's skills are being pulled out into the ether and disappearing. They're just using them in a different way."

Other critics don't give a fig for consciousness-raising or other stay-at-home feminist wishful thinking. A new genre of stay-at-home literature is blossoming: Author and former TV producer Darla Shine's new Happy Housewives and New Yorker staff writer Caitlin Flanagan's To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing our Inner Housewife, out this month, are the logical counterpoints to Ms. Hirshman.

Of course, like conservative author Danielle Crittenden ( The Price of Motherhood) before them, Ms. Shine and Ms. Flanagan have actual careers and make money -- as writers. And yes, this is mostly a debate among women who can afford the "choice" to stay home.

But British author Benedicte Newland, who co-wrote (with her sister) the cheeky motherhood novel And God Created the Au Pair, says Ms. Hirshman is just mistaken about the basics of human nature. Ms. Newland drew on her experiences as a stay-at-home mom of four (now 3 to 15) in the novel. But before she started having children at the age of 28, she was a corporate lawyer making more money than her husband, former National Post editor Martin Newland.

"What [Ms. Hirshman]is aggressively doing is trying to make women the same as men. They never will be. They just aren't," Ms. Newland says from London. "It was a luxury and a privilege for me. Some women find the minutiae of their children's lives is far more interesting than being a finance director."

But to Prof. Duxbury, more worrisome than this rarefied debate among the upper echelons is the fact that the way people of all income brackets are dealing with the pressures of juggling work and home life is to delay having children or not have them at all: Canadian birth rates have declined from 4.1 children per woman in the baby boom to 1.5 now. (It takes a rate of 2.1 to replace the population.)

"So I'm much more concerned about women saying, 'I can't have both.' I want a career. I want to use my brain, my education. It's not that my husband won't do his bit. It's not all about policy. It's about practice."

Christine Ellison says she is able to enjoy both spheres of her life, although she admits that her husband is often like a single parent. While she often misses Michael's bedtime, she delays going to the office until 9 or 9:30 a.m. to be with him, and takes over Saturday swim lessons. On Thursday nights, she zips home early from her Toronto office so her husband can play basketball.

She has few peers in her field, she says. The partners in accounting firms are predominantly male. Most of the female exceptions are single.

"The women who are married with children that I know of are working reduced work schedules," she says. "In order to compete with your peers and achieve certain aspirations along your career path, you need the flexibility to work those hours and put in the time. It's very difficult to do that if you don't have an arrangement at home that allows you the flexibility to do that."

And that takes us right back to the workplace. But this time, it's about the Daddy Track. One factor that made it easier for Ms. Ellison's family to configure itself the way it did was the culture in Mr. Fulsang's workplace -- in a negative sense.

Mr. Fulsang had heard through the grapevine that if he came back after his parental leave, his role was going to be drastically changed. "He decided he wasn't returning to an employer who was supportive and it made sense for him to quit."

His employer hadn't been very supportive of the leave in the first place, Ms. Ellison says. "Even though it's the law, there are a lot of employers that are of the mindset that having children and taking a leave are a women's issue, not a family issue. So they have a work force that is predominantly male and it's something they don't have to face."

Ms. Ellison says that unless more men take advantage of parental leave, child care will remain a women's issue.

Ms. Duxbury, whose subject of study used to be called "work-life balance" but which is now called "managing a changing work force," says in addition to the tremendous pressure on women to be the primary caregiver, there's just as much pressure on men not to.

"Even in the most liberal countries with parental leaves like Scandinavia, they're underused. Why? Because men who use them are told they're not serious about their career."

Luke, a Toronto father of two, has a pragmatic perspective on his choice to stay home while his higher-earning journalist wife went to work. "No matter how I looked at it, it made no logical sense to leave the kid elsewhere so I could stand behind a counter in some bookstore," says Luke (not his real name), now 46. Yet he says it was "a genuine, even shocking surprise when I finally decided."

He says people still don't think of a guy staying with the kids as a stay-at-home dad, but rather as unemployed. He says there weren't many invitations from the moms for coffee or play dates at first. "My mantra during the early years [his kids are 10 and 12 now]was that what I was doing was the most important thankless job on the planet."

He cringes at the idea that more than a decade later he remains a trailblazer, but he does see the potential for an aggregate effect of swapping gender roles: "Let's face it, if the majority of caregivers were male, then universal daycare would have been a slam-dunk years ago."

But Ms. Newland, the blogger -- who admits she's considering going back to the briefcase now that her youngest is almost of school age -- doesn't mind if men never take on 50 per cent of the home and child-care duties.

"I think a lot of women don't find that kind of man very alluring. I think they're a bit wet, actually, but you're not allowed to say that. But I'd rather have a strong provider."

Even if Ms. Hirshman's vision never comes to be, Ms. Duxbury sees reason to be more optimistic about women's working future. The mommy wars may fade away as a labour shortage -- like the current one in Alberta -- takes hold across North America.

With the projected retirement rates in the next decade, she says, only 20 per cent of the population have the skills to fill 60 per cent of jobs in the emerging knowledge-worker economy. So potential employees will have much more clout.

"People are going to be in the driver's seat -- men who want to spend more time with their children, women who want careers," she says.

"I'm not convinced workplaces have been trying -- they've been talking about it. There is quite a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, but a lot of organizations are going to start changing the direction of their Titanic a little too late."

In the meantime, individual women like Christine Ellison will continue to build new models of domestic life, their spouses willing. Whether or not they are consciously building Ms. Hirshman's utopia, they are doing what feels right.

"You do feel pulled in different directions," Ms. Ellison says. "But you find ways to make things work."

Luke says he now sees more full- or part-time stay-at-home dads helping to make it work in his neighbourhood. "Based on our local schoolyard, the number has gone from two, when I started, to maybe three or four these days. . . . And you definitely see more fathers picking their kids up in the schoolyard than you used to, so perhaps more men are basing their work schedules around their children."

But it's still very few, he says: "I'd say the number of lesbian parents is much higher." Which is quite another way of solving the problem.

Tralee Pearce is a Globe and Mail feature writer.