Gender Norms Are Hard to Change: When Women Earn More

I remember when my spouse and I decided to move in together and share our lives. Both self-employed, we agreed that I would be the primary breadwinner while he fixed up our house and got a new business started. Then one night his mother called to chat, and his father shouted loudly from the background, “Tell that bum to get a job!” My partner struggled to keep his composure for a few hours afterward. His father had pulled the “man card” to make it clear that a real man would never let himself be financially dependent on a woman. Tara Siegel Bernard of the New York Times notes that gender roles in the United States have become more egalitarian over the past half-century. She points out that women now outnumber men in college and collect more degrees. In addition, the number of women earning more than their husbands in opposite-gender relationships has been slowly rising, and men are taking on more responsibility at home. Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times supports these observations with statistics from a recent study by the Census Bureau, which shows that about one-quarter of women now earn more than men in opposite-sex couples in the United States, up from 18 percent in the 1980s. However, both authors point out that despite these shifts, certain gender-role expectations persist. Miller cites a recent study from the Pew Research Center that shows 71 percent of people surveyed say that to be a good husband, men should be able to support a family. Only 32 percent said the same about women as wives. Bernard concludes that we have held on to the idea that men are supposed to provide but have loosened up on the idea that women have to be homemakers. One indicator of the stickiness of gender roles is reflected in the discomfort women and men feel about women earning more. Miller reports that in the Census Bureau study, in opposite-sex marriages, women understated what they earned while men overstated their earnings. The researchers called this “manning up and womaning down.” Miller notes that the Census Bureau report had some other surprise findings about the 23 percent of couples in which women earn more:

  • These women earned more than double the average earnings of women who did not outearn their husbands.
  • They are more likely to have college degrees.
  • They are more likely to be black.
  • Age and geography make no difference. Couples in which women earned more were as common in liberal cities as in the conservative South.
Miller also shared a large new study by economists at the University of Chicago, which found that women who outearned their husbands did significantly more housework and childrearing than their husbands—perhaps to make their husbands feel better about the situation. Generational differences are showing some changes in gender-role expectations—but old attitudes die hard for all of us and tend to reappear when we least expect them. Let us know what has worked for you to create truly egalitarian relationships.   Photo courtesy of Hernán Piñera (CC BY-SA 2.0)]]>

The Cost of Being a Successful Woman: New Research from Sweden

Joan C. Williams, writing for the Harvard Business Review about why white working-class men and women voted for Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election, describes the strong feelings about traditional gender roles that still exist in segments of our society. She explains, “Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place.” She goes on to explain that manly dignity is a big deal for most working-class men. So is breadwinner status: Many still measure masculinity by the size of a paycheck,” and the paychecks of working-class men have been decreasing since the 1970s. During this same time period in the United States, women, especially educated women, have gained greater access to opportunities, increasing the resentment of working-class men and women. While the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump reflects, at least in part, that traditional attitudes about gender roles are still deeply embedded in large segments of society in the United States, a recent study finds that, surprisingly, these attitudes also still exist in Sweden. Why is this a surprise? Ray Fisman, writing for, explains that while Sweden is known to be a progressive country with legal protections for women, generous family leave, and free day care for all, societal gender norms still play a big role. Fisman cites research by Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne showing that female career success is harmful to marriages in Sweden. They followed the marriages of aspiring female politicians and found that while winners’ and losers’ divorce rates are identical before an election, the divorce rate for winners doubles relative to that of losers right after an election. They find a similar impact from becoming a female CEO in Sweden. Fisman notes, “The authors argue that the women’s sudden success puts extra strain on marriages in which men are accustomed to playing a more dominant role in the workforce.” According to the researchers, the effect is larger when “the promotion results in the woman becoming the household’s dominant earner.” The costs of these attitudes about successful women are high. Neither the United States nor Sweden has ever had a female head of state—at least in part a reflection of discomfort with ambitious women. Other costs include

  • women having to work twice as hard to be considered for promotions
  • women receiving harsher performance feedback often with a focus on personal characteristics rather than results
  • higher divorce rates
I agree with Fisman’s closing statement: “We still have a long way to go.” Photo courtesy of BusinessForward CC by 2.0  ]]>