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For all the progress women have made in the past few decades—in education, work force participation, and earnings—a gender gap remains. Research by Marianne Bertrand, Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, suggests that this may be due to the societal expectation that a woman make less money than her husband.

Bertrand explores this dynamic in a new working paper, “Gender Identity and Relative Income within Households,” cowritten with Emir Kamenica, associate professor of economics and Robert King Steel Faculty Fellow, along with an associate at the National University of Singapore.  

The notion that a man should earn more than his wife not only impacts marriage rates, the researchers show, but also influences how much a married woman works outside the home and how household chores are divided. Moreover, women who deviate from that norm pay a social price.  

Women outearn their husbands in nearly a quarter of households with spouses between 18 and 65 years old, according to data from the 2010 American Community Survey. But their increased paycheck comes at a price, as the researchers show. They find that marriage rates decline when a woman has the potential to outearn her husband. Using US Census Bureau data from 1970 to 2010, Bertrand and her coauthors find that the more likely it is that a wife can earn more than her husband, the less likely she is to work outside the home.

Moreover, among adults age 25 to 39, marriage rates have declined from about 81 percent in 1970 to 51 percent in 2010. The authors calculate that as much as 29 percent of that decline may be linked to aversion to a wife earning more than her husband.

A married woman earning more increases the probability of unhappiness in her union. Using data from 4,000 married couples surveyed as part of the US National Survey of Families and Households, the researchers show that the percentage of people who report being “very happy” with their marriage declines when a woman earns more money than her husband.

While close to 50 percent of wives and husbands report being very happily married, both spouses are 6 percentage points less likely to report a “very happy” marriage when the wife earns more. They’re 8 percentage points more likely to report marital troubles in the past year and 6 percentage points more likely to have discussed separating in the past year.  

A woman outearning her husband could even doom the marriage, as the researchers report this “increases the likelihood of divorce by 50 percent.”

When a married woman has a career outside of the home, she may opt for less demanding and lower paying jobs in order to appear less “threatening” to her husband. Or, she may choose to focus entirely on child rearing, and work part-time outside the home or not at all. Such women “distort labor market outcomes,” the economists conclude.

Moreover, wives who earn more often end up doing more of the household chores, not less. Data from the American Time Use Survey, covering the years 2003 to 2011, showed that while husbands spent an average of 20.8 hours a week on non-market work and childcare, wives spent 33.5 hours on those activities. One explanation for this, the researchers suggest, is that a wife making more money is doing more chores to assuage her husband’s unease. But serving as both the primary breadwinner and the primary homemaker may be draining. That, the researchers point out, “may be one of the mechanisms behind our results on divorce.”—Emily Lambert

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