behind every womanAmong the 80 or so customers crammed into Bare Escentuals, it’s easy to spot Leslie Blodgett. It’s not merely her six-inch platform heels and bright magenta-and-blue dress that set her apart in the Thousand Oaks (Calif.) mall boutique, but her confidence. To the woman concerned she’s too old for shimmery eye shadow, Blodgett swoops in and encourages her to wear whatever she wants. With a deft sweep of a brush, she demonstrates a new shade of blush on another customer’s cheek. And when she isn’t helping anyone, she pivots on her heels for admirers gushing about her dress, made by the breakout designer Erdem.

Blodgett, 49, has spent the past 18 years nurturing Bare Escentuals from a startup into a global cosmetics empire. She sold the company for $1.7 billion to Shiseido in March 2010 but still pitches products in stores around the world and chats incessantly with customers online. Scores of fans post daily messages on Blodgett’s Facebook page, confessing details about their personal lives and offering opinions on her additive-free makeup. She only wishes her 19-year-old son, Trent, were in touch with her as frequently as he is with her husband, Keith. In 1995, at 38, Keith quit making television commercials to raise Trent, freeing up Leslie to build her business. She’d do it all again, but she’s jealous of her husband’s relationship with her son. Trent, a college sophomore, texts his father almost every day; he often goes a week without texting her.

“Once I knew my role was providing for the family, I took that very seriously. But there was envy knowing I wasn’t there for our son during the day,” says Blodgett. “Keith does everything at home—the cooking, repairs, finances, vacation planning—and I could work long hours and travel a lot, knowing he took such good care of Trent. I love my work, but I would have liked to have a little more balance or even understand what that means.”

Blodgett’s lament is becoming more familiar as a generation of female breadwinners look back on the sacrifices—some little, some profound—required to have the careers they wanted. Like hundreds of thousands of women who have advanced into management roles in the past two decades—and, in particular, the hundreds who’ve become senior corporate officers—she figured out early what every man with a corner office has long known: To make it to the top, you need a wife. If that wife happens to be a husband, and increasingly it is, so be it.

When Carly Fiorina became Hewlett-Packard’s (HPQ) first female chief executive officer, the existence of her househusband, Frank Fiorina, who had retired early from AT&T (T) to support her career, was a mini-sensation; now this arrangement isn’t at all unusual. Seven of the 18 women who are currently CEOs of Fortune 500 companies—including Xerox’s (XRX) Ursula Burns,PepsiCo’s (PEP) Indra Nooyi, and WellPoint’s (WLP) Angela Braly—have, or at some point have had, a stay-at-home husband. So do scores of female CEOs of smaller companies and women in other senior executive jobs. Others, like IBM’s (IBM) new CEO, Ginni Rometty, have spouses who dialed back their careers to become their powerful wives’ chief domestic officers.

This role reversal is occurring more and more as women edge past men at work. Women now fill a majority of jobs in the U.S., including 51.4 percent of managerial and professional positions, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Some 23 percent of wives now out-earn their husbands, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center. And this earnings trend is more dramatic among younger people. Women 30 and under make more money, on average, than their male counterparts in all but three of the largest cities in the U.S.

During the recent recession, three men lost their jobs for every woman. Many unemployed fathers, casualties of layoffs in manufacturing and finance, have ended up caring for their children full-time while their wives are the primary wage earners. The number of men in the U.S. who regularly care for children under age five increased to 32 percent in 2010 from 19 percent in 1988, according to Census figures. Among those fathers with preschool-age children, one in five served as the main caregiver.

Even as the trend becomes more widespread, stigmas persist. At-home dads are sometimes perceived as freeloaders, even if they’ve lost jobs. Or they’re considered frivolous kept men—gentlemen who golf. The househusbands of highly successful women, after all, live in luxurious homes, take nice vacations, and can afford nannies and housekeepers, which many employ at least part-time. In reaction, at-home dads have launched a spate of support groups and daddy blogs to defend themselves.

“Men are suddenly seeing what it’s been like for women throughout history,” says Linda R. Hirshman, a lawyer and the author of Get to Work, a book that challenges at-home moms to secure paying jobs and insist that their husbands do at least half the housework. Caring for children all day and doing housework is tiring, unappreciated work that few are cut out for—and it leaves men and women alike feeling isolated and diminished.

There’s some good news about the at-home dads trend. “By going against the grain, men get to stretch their parenting abilities and women can advance,” notes Stephanie Coontz, a family studies professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and author of Marriage: a History. And yet the trend underscores something else: When jobs are scarce or one partner is aiming high, a two-career partnership is next to impossible. “Top power jobs are so time-consuming and difficult, you can’t have two spouses doing them and maintain a marriage and family,” says Coontz. This explains why, even as women make up more of the workforce, they’re still a small minority (14 percent, according to New York-based Catalyst) in senior executive jobs. When they reach the always-on, all-consuming executive level, “it’s still women who more often put family ahead of their careers,” says Ken Matos, a senior director at Families and Work Institute in New York. It may explain, too, why bookstore shelves and e-book catalogs are jammed with self-help books for ambitious women, of which I’d Rather Be in Charge, by former Ogilvy-Mather Worldwide CEO Charlotte Beers, is merely the latest. Some, such as Hirshman’s top-selling Get to Work, recommend that women “marry down”—find husbands who won’t mind staying at home—or wed older men who are ready to retire as their careers take off. What’s indisputable is that couples increasingly are negotiating whose career will take precedence before they start a family.

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