WORKING mothers found out a long time ago about the blighting effect that family commitments can have on career prospects. Now it appears their husbands and partners are feeling it too. New research from America shows that men whose wives stay at home to care for the children earn more and get quicker promotion than colleagues from two-career families. It's being called the 'daddy penalty'.

A study at Loyola University of Chicago of 348 male managers found that over five years 'traditional' fathers had received 20 per cent higher pay rises than men with working wives. Another study, from Pace University, of 231 men who gained MBA degrees in the late 1970s found that those with home-based wives earn 25 per cent more than those with career wives.

Here, in spite of the Institute of Directors' reaction - 'It's not an aspect of business we would discuss in our committees' - some business watchers are becoming aware of the same syndrome. 'There is anecdotal evidence,' said Anne Leeming, Programme Director at City Business Schools. 'For example, my daughter-in-law, who's 27, no kids, and works for a large corporation, gets quite cross at the number of men clockwatching and lacking staying power because of their domestic duties. And, in my own experience, my husband hasn't got as far as he could because he takes his share in family life.'

Dianah Worman, policy advisor at the Institute of Personnel Management, agrees. 'It also fits in with research we have on the impact of divorce, which has a disastrous effect on men's careers: they are suddenly left without the domestic structure and don't have the opportunity to concentrate on their work.'

On the face of it, it's not hard to see why a man with a 'traditional' domestic set up should do better at work. Dual-career family dads, according to the Loyola study, put in four per cent less 'face-time' per week, and are perceived as less dedicated to the job, suspected of divided loyalties.

But Dianah Worman suggests that the existence of the 'daddy penalty' is often the result of a deliberate choice by these men and their wives: 'Quality of life is now much more common than success as a top priority.'

That is how it was for Jeffrey, a 42-year-old marketing manager, married to a personnel director and father of two children (seven and four). He has seen younger colleagues overtake him at work. 'I know there've been times when I've lost Brownie points with bosses because I've had to get home on time, or I haven't been able to drop everything and get on a plane because it didn't fit with my wife's commitments, but I'd make the same choice again. My boss seems to feel threatened by my wife's career, which he wouldn't if she were working part-time. But my wife being happy is more important to me than getting ahead at work.'

Could it be that the recession is driving companies back to traditional male chauvinism, just when it seemed that the male-dominated workplace was on its way out? Dianah Worman says: 'It's true that some corporate structures fall back on old familiar work system when things aren't going well.' But she is convinced that the 'daddy penalty' happens because more men now give greater priority to quality of life.

There are now more youngish New Men executives in business, with equally laid-back working wives, who are quite prepared to let more work-orientated colleagues get ahead in return for less stressful and more rounded lives.

'I've noticed over the last two years that the number of men and their opposite numbers who would have given their eye teeth for promotion are now on the way out,' says management consultant Peter Rendall. 'Status at work is not the driving force it was.'

There's no statistical research in Britian to demonstrate the effect of stay-at-home wives on their husbands' success, but on an anecdotal level it appears that often their careers do suddenly surge - perhaps as a result of the added attention from both members of the couple.

City financial adviser Nigel Lovell believes his marriage is stronger since his wife Alison gave up her job in public relations before they had children. 'We used to be two people with independent lives with hardly any real points of contact,' he says. 'I've done much better since she stayed at home, partly because she's a tremendous asset to me in my work. She understands my work. She's great with social contacts, and she can talk to my bosses on an equal basis. When I got a promotion two years ago, my boss actually said when he told me that I should thank her.'

Alison says: 'I don't feel excluded because I feel I've got a stake in Nigel's success. His firm virtually gets the two of us for the price of one.

If I was still working too, we'd both be spreading ourselves pretty thin.'

Pat Harper, in her early thirties, decided a year ago with her husband Peter that for a few years they should concentrate exclusively on his career as a teacher in the independent school system. Pat is a qualified solicitor and was doing well in a Bristol law firm. 'I gave up working for reasons of Peter's career. It was a critical moment when he had to make a move to set himself up to go onwards and upwards, or simply settle for more of the same.

He had been five years in one school, and we agreed it was time he moved.

'When the right job for him came along, it would have meant me commuting 120 miles a day. I liked my work and I worked hard for my qualification, but we both felt his career came first at the time.

'My generation is beginning to feel we've seen the 1980s, seen Mrs Thatcher's Britain, and we want a better life. You can spend your twenties working hard and building up a sufficient standard of living, and you're loaded with money and cars and you don't have time to get quality out of the money.'

The 'daddy penalty' may be a sign of a new non-competitive enlightenment among men at work. Or of a gathering storm cloud of corporate fundamentalism pushing career wives back towards the dark ages.

(Photograph omitted)