05/29/2015 02:55 EDT | Updated 05/29/2016 05:59 EDT

The Problem With The "Wife Bonus" Is That It Fuels Sexism


By now, someone has popped their head over a cubicle or cornered you at a dinner party to ask if you've heard about the "wife bonus." The garbage term was exposed to the masses by social researcher Wednesday Martin, who wrote the soon-to-be-released memoir called "Primates of Park Avenue" about joining the world of Manhattan's richest stay-at-home moms (or, as she calls them "Glam SAHMs"). In a New York Times op-ed, Martin describes how husbands dole out a cut of their work bonuses to their wives based on how they've performed as mothers and homemakers. It's worth noting that most of these women have business degrees from prestigious schools. Go ahead and barf. I'll be here when you get back.

A working parent paying a stay-at-home parent to take care of the kids is not inherently offensive. I think in 2015 we can all agree that running errands, cleaning the house and cooking meals while making sure your children don't die or become horrible people are jobs more than worthy of compensation. But the problem with the "wife bonus" is that it stems from an incredibly sexist culture.

It's tempting to view the term as an instance of poor branding. Call it a stay-at-home salary and we can all go home. But the "wife bonus" is called a "wife bonus" because it comes from the brains of people who still don't view men and women as equals. Changing the words won't do anything to change their entrenched attitudes.

You won't hear anyone on the Upper East Side referring to a "husband bonus." No Toto, when you hit Wall St., you're not in the 21st century anymore. The men who control our financial fates are stuck in the past. Many of their wives are like Betty Drapers with Instagram. Back in the real world, the number of stay-at-home dads has doubled since 1989, according to the Pew Research Center. But the Park Avenue men are part of an antiquated culture in which men hold briefcases and women hold babies.

Martin says that many of the men in her book run hedge or private equity funds, jobs that remain firmly in the old boys' clubs due to large gender pay gaps and aggressive work environments. In this world, women should look pretty while men earn the bacon. As Martin describes: "No ponytails or mom jeans here: they exercised themselves to a razor's edge, wore expensive and exquisite outfits to school drop-off and looked a decade younger than they were."

There is also gender segregation, because of course, people with different genitalia can't possibly have anything in common. At some dinner parties "husbands and wives sat at entirely different tables in entirely different rooms" and Martin describes the plethora of "alcohol-fueled girls' nights out," "women-only luncheons" and "girlfriend-only flyaway parties on private planes." Need to barf again? I understand.

This lack of communication between the sexes could explain why it's called a wife rather than a mom bonus. These men probably have no idea what their partners actually do during the day. "My wife? Oh, her big task this afternoon is to buy perfume to wear at the fundraiser tonight." In reality, Martin describes highly competent mothers who run "their homes (plural) like C.E.O.s," doing everything to get their kids into the best schools and after-school programs. But the term "wife bonus" makes their labour sound frivolous -- it implies a woman is being rewarded for serving her husband rather than taking care of her children. And that poor word choice is rooted in reality. Polly Phillips, one of the Park Avenue women interviewed by Martin, wrote a horrifying op-ed in the New York Post describing her husband's attitude about the bonus: "He's got a very politically incorrect sense of humor and joked it was to reward me for being a 'good little wife,' which made me laugh out loud." People who make these kinds of jokes are never entirely joking.

The uneven power dynamic between these men and women is best embodied by the word "bonus." Unlike with a dependable salary or a government credit, a boss decides whether or not you receive a bonus based on your performance. Apparently, the husbands of Park Ave. take this literally. Martin writes that a wife's payout depends on criteria such as "how well she managed the home budget" or "whether the kids got into a 'good' school." The idea that a man who works 70 hours a week in an office is qualified to evaluate parenting skills is proof that men control this culture. Despite the fact that replacing a traditional stay-at-home parent would cost about $96,261/year according to Investopedia ( made a similar estimate), these women still need to meet the "good wife" standard to receive money they have more than earned.

Any parent who chooses to give up his or her job to raise children deserves a cut of money from their working partner. But they also deserve to be treated equally instead of like subordinates to their husbands-turned-bosses. If changing words could change people's beliefs, calling the wife bonus something more palatable might help husbands take what their wives do at home more seriously. But like the trees that line its streets, sexism on Park Avenue is deeply rooted. It will take more than a new expression for equality to grow.


Sexist Vintage Ads