The New Organization Marriage

In Silicon Valley, they’ve moved beyond the “power couple.’

At a dinner party in Silicon Valley, the outsider must come to terms with the couple he has just met. John is the wildly successful chief executive of a new technology company and is worth maybe $35 million, give or take a few million, depending on what the market did that day. Jane was the wildly successful marketing director for that very same company–until she fell for John. It started as an innocent working relationship. Both were obsessed with their careers; both were sexually if not emotionally involved with other people; office romance was the furthest thing from their minds. But then late one night they found themselves hunched over the Unix workstation and … gulp! In the click of a mouse Jane knew she had met her future husband. Inside a year she’d dumped her boyfriend, quit her job, and married her boss. Now she is a housewife. (And a very nice house it is.)

The outsider senses that Jane and John define themselves by their abilities in the workplace. He knows what John does for a living because he’s read all about him in the business magazines. But he’s unsure what to make of Jane. She retains the predatory confidence of a market animal, but she no longer works for money. The outsider spends the next two hours trying not to ask her the wrong question, for fear that deep down, Jane is embarrassed by her situation.

Deep down, she isn’t. The Valley is adjusting the old rules of work and marriage to its new prosperity. In this it bears a passing resemblance to other venues of American ambition–the music industry, Hollywood, Wall Street, celebrities in general. Jane Fonda and Annette Bening gradually vanish from the silver screen after getting hitched to Ted Turner and Warren Beatty, respectively. Edie Brickell marries Paul Simon and stops producing hits; Lynda Carter marries attorney Robert Altman and stops being Wonder Woman. Before she wed America’s most eligible bachelor, Carolyn Bessette had a career with Calvin Klein. Now she is a Kennedy housewife. (And a very nice Kennedy he is.) One city of ambition that has failed to adopt the early retirement plan for women is Washington, D.C., where ambitious young Republicans still long for a power coupling such as the Doles’.

The difference in the Silicon Valley model is that John was once Jane’s boss. A young Valley woman, like a young Valley man, acquires high status by creating, or helping to create, a new technology company. Her status attracts the sexual attention of some male of slightly higher status. Thus her subsequent retirement is viewed not as a sign of weakness but of strength: If Jane hadn’t been a commercial success, John never would have been interested in her in the first place. Her husband’s success merely reflects her own.

T he novel bargain struck between Valley men and their women looks different to each–which is probably why it works so well. To the newly minted male millionerd the most desirable spouse is neither the woman who has no career, nor the woman who wishes to build a career, but the woman who is willing to abandon a brilliant career to become his wife. John doesn’t marry Jane, he hires her. There are several reasons he prefers this arrangement over the others:

Jane’s experience in his world enables John to talk to her about his work every night.

Jane’s proven worth in the marketplace frees John from concern about her self-esteem and leaves him more time to build his own.

Jane is a very powerful status signal. Foregone production is the first cousin of conspicuous consumption. The Silicon Valley equivalent of the mink stole is the half-million-dollar salary simply left behind. More generally, Jane’s retirement illustrates to the wider world John’s power to attract and subdue success.

In short, to the male millionerd, the market for wives looks a lot like the great rodeo it was before women entertained thoughts of having their own brilliant careers. To exhibit his superiority over rivals he must pick the friskiest calf out of the holding pen and have her neatly roped and trussed up in a matter of seconds. Find the most highly paid businesswoman he can, and … put her out of business!

But what does the woman make of her bargain? The most ambitious career women across Silicon Valley, women who toiled for a decade to build their market value, now are quitting the moment they locate husbands who make more money than they do. Certainly they do not think of themselves as frisky rodeo calves waiting to be roped and trussed; the old-fashioned rodeo model is not at all what they have in mind. What they aspire to–as best as the outsider can determine–is to procreate and still preserve their status, without having to rush back and forth between day care and a desk. If so, they have timed their move perfectly. That forlorn character the working mother briefly enjoyed high status, but now she is tired. Her ankles are thick. Alternatively, having a great career that you wouldn’t jettison for a man was once the thing to do. But now there are simply too many women with careers for a career to distinguish a truly ambitious woman. How much finer to be able to work your way to the top and simply … walk away.