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  ]]>

2 thoughts on “The Cost of Being a Successful Woman: New Research from Sweden”

  1. Morning Anne,
    Another great post! I do agree with you that we have a long way to go…however, I do also believe that is what our life truly holds for us all. Our lives are a journey that we must be ever mindful, and hopefully hungry, through which to evolve. For example:
    Once in a relationship, we do not stop growing or settling into a single role or responsibility.
    Once in a job, we do not stop learning or probing or inquiring about the unknown.
    Once in a 4-year new US administration politically, we do not stop holding fast to our core values nor quickly change to an evolving ideological…
    But, in my view, we do have a wonderful US history on which to reflect that clearly demonstrates how our forefathers all had values, as your father’s, and actually both of my parents’, too (both still independently living and driving at 87 and 90). I believe that we need to continue to have these differing views so that we may help to inform our future paths, just like our forefathers and the women in their lives.
    As for our women today becoming more and more being successful in the workplace, having two daughters myself, there is no doubt in their minds (at ages 22 and 28) that their “roles” in the workplace, home and among their social friendships, are truly grounded in “evolving roles” – not traditional or the outlier, but ones that work for them. Their mindfulness is a daily vitamin. Every day they encounter situations that help to shape who they are within these roles. I am very proud of their decision making and evolving roles. Their role is their choice. Your blog is going to them this AM!
    Thank you, Dr. Litwin, for writing to us all and reminding us of these ever important views. Keep writing!


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