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Sandra Bullock split with her husband, Jesse James, shortly after winning an Oscar in 2010, another victim of the ‘Oscar Curse.’ (Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press)
Sandra Bullock split with her husband, Jesse James, shortly after winning an Oscar in 2010, another victim of the ‘Oscar Curse.’ (Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press)

BUSINESS SCHOOL RESEARCH

Female breadwinners pay a cost for career success – marital stress Add to ...

The Globe’s report on research from business schools.

Alyson Byrne has long been curious about the so-called “Oscar Curse,” which says winners of the Academy Award for best actress are doomed to be unlucky in love.

In recent years, a group of researchers actually calculated that women who take home the golden statuette are 1.68 times more likely to file for divorce than their nominated counterparts.

Sandra Bullock became the latest casualty in 2010 when she famously split with her husband, Jesse James, just weeks after she was rewarded for her starring role in The Blind Side.

Dr. Byrne, assistant professor in organizational behavior and human resource management at Memorial University’s faculty of business administration in St. John’s, was a PhD student at the time of Bullock’s win, with an interest in what she calls “the counterintuitive side” of having status in the workplace.

“Because we always look at it as something so positive,” she says.

Her academic pursuit became all the more relevant amid the media gossip that swirled around Ms. Bullock’s marital collapse, and she began to examine whether the “curse” extends to high-status women with careers outside Hollywood.

Seven years later, Dr. Byrne and co-author Julian Barling, professor of organizational behavior at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, have come up with a bold new take on the topic.

Their recent study, published in Organization Science, seeks to move the dial beyond studies that view the issue primarily through a male lens – essentially saying that the men can’t handle a more powerful wife.

The new study serves to fill an omission in the research to date: Women are asked directly about how they feel about their lower-status husbands, and what it’s like to be the breadwinner in what is still considered to be a non-traditional household.

“You have to imagine that a lot of these women, particularly in senior executive or high-status roles, are very smart and very ambitious. We know from management studies that they’ve had to work that much harder and face that many more barriers. So what happens to them when they take a step back and look at their marriages and think, you know, I’ve worked so hard to get to my job and I’m married to someone who maybe hasn’t been as fortunate or as successful or maybe hasn’t been ambitious? Society tells me, unfortunately, that is not the norm,” says Dr. Byrne.

“We really wanted to get their voices and see how they feel and what impact that might have on their marital dynamics.”

To find the answers, Dr. Byrne and Dr. Barling surveyed more than 200 high-achieving businesswomen in Canada in heterosexual marriages or common-law relationships. (Their research is expected to expand to include same-sex couples.) Most of the women held at least a university degree, with 80 per cent earning more than $95,000 a year. By contrast, 31 per cent of male partners of those surveyed held a university degree, and 44 per cent earned less than $95,000.

Among the methods employed, participants were asked to respond to a series of revealing statements such as: “My spouse’s job impedes my future career success;” “I am embarrassed when my spouse accompanies me to work events;” “My spouse’s work makes me look bad.”

The conclusions are complex, though suggest some clear patterns. Namely, many high-status women reported that being married to husbands with lower status than themselves does, in fact, act as a form of personal loss to their own status. And that, in turn, predicts marital dissatisfaction and instability.

This process, dubbed “wives’ status leakage,” occurs through the emotional and psychological reactions that these status differences trigger, the researchers state in their paper.

In a surprising twist, the researchers found that a husband’s willingness to provide instrumental support to his more-powerful wife – that is, child care or domestic help – has the ability to negate the effects of status leakage. The same is not true for a man’s emotional support. Instead, women tend to get the emotional boost they need from friends, peers or family, says Dr. Byrne.

Equally unexpected was how long the results of the study held. In a follow-up subsample, the researchers found that women who had higher status than their husbands and were feeling status loss were still experiencing higher rates of marital instability three years later.

The sense of loss doesn’t have to be significant to influence the marriage, says Dr. Byrne.

“[These women] are not feeling disgusted by their husband’s lower status position or incredibly angry. They are just feeling loss or wishing that they [the men] were at a similar level to their own, but it creates these long-term impacts on their marriages,” she says.

It’s worth noting that Dr. Byrne and Dr. Barling maintain they aren’t trying to dissuade ambitious women from getting married. “We really don’t want this to be a horribly sad story,” says Dr. Byrne.

But, they believe, too often people don’t have the right conversations, wrongly assuming things will work out in the end.

The results of the study indicate more work is needed to keep relationships on track.

“We suggest that, if you are an ambitious woman in your field and you also want to have a happy marriage, you may have to have some uncomfortable conversations pretty early in your partnership,” says Dr. Byrne. “It’s a lot better to do that than to wait 15 years and be ambitious in your career but dissatisfied in your marriage.”

They are also hoping the study helps to elevate leadership development and training in universities and businesses.

“There is a lot of pressure on women right now to lean in. We’re asking them to climb the corporate ladder, and corporations are setting gender targets for more and more senior management roles, which is great. We’re not disputing any of that,” says Dr. Byrne.

“But do women know the whole picture of what they are getting themselves into?”

Story ideas related to business school research in Canada can be sent to darahhansen@yahoo.ca.

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