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 economist Marianne Bertrand, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, suggests that this may be due to social norms, namely the expectation that a woman should make less money than her husband.
In a new working paper co-written by Chicago Booth colleague Emir Kamenica, an associate professor of economics, and Jessica Pan, an assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, the research finds the notion that "a man should earn more than his wife” impacts everything from marriage rates, to household chores, to how much a married woman works outside of the home. Moreover, women who deviate from that norm pay a social price.
In the US, it has become commonplace for women to out-earn their husbands. That’s true for 24% of couples where both spouses are aged 18 to 65, according to data from the 2010 American Community Survey.
But what’s commonplace remains challenging, as the researchers show. They find that marriage rates decline where a woman has the potential to out-earn her husband. Among adults aged 25 to 39, marriage rates have declined from about 81 percent in 1970 to 51 percent in 2010. Bertrand estimates that as much as 29 percent of that decline is linked to an aversion to a wife earning more than the husband.
And when a woman earns more, it increases her probability of unhappiness. Using data from 4,000 married couples, 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 reported 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. It also appears to affect divorce rates, as they write that having a wife earn more than her husband "increases the likelihood of divorce by 50 percent.”
"When a woman does work outside of the home, she may end up working less in order to appear less threatening to her husband,” said Bertrand. "By opting for less demanding and lower paying jobs, or by working part time, women distort labour market outcomes. Moreover, women who do out-earn their husbands don’t get a break on house work. We find that women who make more end up doing more of the household chores, not less.”