Is your colleague’s stay-at-home wife holding you back at work?

That’s the provocative question being asked by researchers in a recent paper, which was flagged by Lauren Stiller Rikleen in a Harvard Business Review blog on Thursday. The researchers — Arthur Brief, Dolly Chugh and Sreedhari D. Desai — used national surveys like the General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center, as well as direct results from studies of married male managers and students with full-time jobs. And they found that employed men with wives who did not work or who worked part time, compared with those with wives who worked full time, tended to:

“(a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.”

I’m skeptical of how well such studies actually translate to the real workplace. While some of the group’s studies were current, others used data that were a decade or more old. At times like this, many men could have wives who don’t work not because they’ve chosen that path, but because economic realities have put them there. In addition, sorting out how much the opinions of these men are caused by their wives’ work status, versus opinions formed through other experiences — say, being passed over for a job, having a positive or negative experience with a female boss in the past — is incredibly hard to do.

Still, it’s an interesting reminder of how unconscious biases can surface. As Rikleen, the executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family, writes on HBR: “It's natural to seek validation for the choices, and particularly the sacrifices, you have made. But when this expresses itself in attitudes and actions that make it difficult for talented individuals whose choices have been different to advance, it is critical for workplace leaders to intervene.”

What do you think? Any experiences dealing with this issue in your own organization? Or know of other good research on the topic? Jump into the comments and share your thoughts.

More from On Leadership:

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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