When Men Step Up ― And Back ― To Support Women’s Ambitions

If it weren’t for his bright red hair, you’d hardly notice him. Riley Roberts, the long-term partner of now-Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, first pops up in Netflix’s new documentary “Knock Down the House” in the background. He’s standing near, often slightly behind, Ocasio-Cortez, recording her on his iPhone, letting her take the limelight. After all, she’s the one running for Congress.

The film, which follows four women (Ocasio-Cortez, Paula Jean Swearingen, Cori Bush and Amy Vilela) running for office during the 2018 midterm elections, provides many intimate insights into what it’s like to mount a political campaign fueled by vision and righteous anger, without corporate money or the buy-in of the Democratic Party establishment. But one of the documentary’s most subtle takeaways is the value that having a partner who supports your ambitions ― with more than just words ― can bring to a woman’s career.

Roberts isn’t a major character in “Knock Down the House,” but viewers do get a glimpse into the web developer’s relationship with Ocasio-Cortez. The two share a home, and we see Roberts making Ocasio-Cortez tea and doing the dishes. He helps collect signatures to get his partner on the ballot. He goes out canvassing. He takes photos. He beams with pride.

He is the most loving, supporting person I’ve seen,” Ocasio-Cortez’s mother told the Daily Mail in March. “He helped her tremendously during the election.”

Other high-achieving female political figures have similarly credited their male partners with stepping up to support their ambitious careers. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has spoken about her husband Bruce Mann’s willingness to relocate to Texas early in their marriage, leaving a tenure-track position in Connecticut, and later on to commute from Cambridge (where Warren was a tenured professor at Harvard) to Philadelphia. She has called Mann her “biggest supporter.”

And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has written extensively about the impact her decadeslong marriage to Martin Ginsburg (an incredibly successful tax attorney in his own right) had on her career trajectory. Not only did he relocate to Washington, but he personally campaigned for his wife to make President Bill Clinton’s Supreme Court short list. “I betray no secret in reporting that, without him, I would not have gained a seat on the Supreme Court,” wrote RBG in a 2016 New York Times op-ed.

Relationships in which a male partner sacrifices leisure time or takes on the lion’s share of child care or prioritizes his female partner’s successes in equal (or greater) measure to his own certainly aren’t anomalies, but they also aren’t the norm. The reality is that for one partner’s professional life to shine and thrive, the other partner often has to take a step back, at least for a period of time. And that partner, in most cases, remains the woman. As Claire Cain Miller put it in a recent New York Times piece, paraphrasing Harvard economist Claudia Goldin:Women don’t step back from work because they have rich husbands. … They have rich husbands because they step back from work.”

The workforce is still set up to reflect an arrangement in which one partner goes to work outside the home while the other handles the domestic labor and caregiving. Despite the fact that gender norms have expanded and shifted significantly over the past five decades, this entrenched system still tends to work against women.

“We know that persistent gender stereotypes, combined with workplace policies and cultures designed for a worker who is not the primary caretaker, means that caregiving still falls primarily on women,” said Deborah J. Vagins, senior vice president of public policy and research at the American Association of University Women. “That’s changing — but not as quickly as one might hope.”

Research has shown that men and women tend to have different, sometimes inaccurate perceptions of how much household labor they take on. This gap increases when children come into the picture.

It isn’t because men — especially younger men — don’t care about taking on an equal share of the responsibilities. A 2015 study found that both millennial men and women tend to have egalitarian views about gender roles, regardless of education level or income. And yet, because this generation is still operating within a society that requires round-the-clock availability for career advancement and does little to subsidize child care, family leave or health care, many heterosexual couples end up falling into more “traditional” patterns.

This can be a shock to the system for high-achieving women. According to the findings of a 2014 study of Harvard Business School graduates, ambitious women often enter marriage assuming that their careers will be prioritized equally, only to find that is not how things play out in reality. “Women are significantly impacted by whether their partners are truly supportive of their careers,” the researchers concluded.

These systemic inequities have a real impact on the gender makeup of institutions and that includes the U.S. government. Women ran — and won — in record numbers in 2018, but still make up less than 25 percent of Congress.

“The past and, to a large extent, the present makeup of the House, Senate, the presidency, SCOTUS, state governorships, state legislatures, and local governments are all testaments to the way institutions of power have kept women out,” Vagins explained.

She pointed to public acknowledgment of less traditional partnerships as one step toward progress, but stressed that this will mean little if it is not coupled with real legislative change — specifically with regards to parental leave, workplace flexibility and affordable child care. 

“The more we see people in leadership roles who defy the old rules and break down the old stereotypes, the more likely it is for this to become normalized,” she said. “But we must continue to fight for policy changes at the employer, local, and federal levels.”

Not coincidentally, it’s the female presidential candidates, including Warren, who are leading the charge on these issues going into the 2020 elections. In an ideal world, both partners in a long-term heterosexual coupling would be free to pursue their ambitions with vigor and abandon. But for now, it remains a constant negotiation ― one in which women full of ideas and goals, both personal and professional, often end up on the short end.

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