What Really Happens When Women Earn More
by Megan Basham
"Men Still Don't Like It When Their Wives Out-Earn Them," "When Women Dare to Out-Earn Men," "Successful Wives Still Make Men Uncomfortable," "Our Gender Roles Still Stuck in the 50s."
These headlines, blaring from Slate, The Economist, The Huffington Post, and The Miami Herald, respectively, all refer to a recent study that analyzes marriage trends and women's earnings. And true to the long-established media meme, they all suggest (or flat out state) that men bitterly resent successful women and are always on the lookout for ways to punish the ladies who've climbed past them on the career ladder.
Here are the study's actual findings:
Regions where women have higher earnings relative to men see lower marriage rates.
Marriages in which the wife is the higher-earning spouse tend to be less happy and are 50 percent more likely to end in divorce.
In a significant number of marriages where husbands are the primary breadwinners the wives would be the higher earning spouse if they were living up to their full income potential based on their education, field, and work history. Instead these women are underemployed or have left the workforce.
Higher-earning wives spend more time doing house work than their lower-earning counterparts.
That's it. At no point do the economists provide any evidence that male prejudice or chauvinism is the cause of any of it. They speculate that it could be the cause, but offer no factual support for the speculation. In fact they baldly state they made no attempt to discover whether its women or men who are unhappy with women earning more. And curiously, they don't even acknowledge that women's preferences could be the driving factor of their results.
Yet the angle of every major outlet to cover the study is that men are retrograde cavemen who must be to blame if their wives earn less than they do.
"In the absence of any male insecurities about their spouse's pay, there should be about the same number of families in which the wife earns a little more than her husband as those in which she earns a little less," writes Slate's Ray Fismin.
Really? Male insecurities are the only plausible reason there aren't an equal number of families where the wife earns more? Likewise, The Economist says the study shows that the "the wage of the husband" is an overlooked glass ceiling "constraining women's careers." And Forbes contributor Emily Jasper wonders whether her "dating pool might be significantly diminished," because of men feeling threatened by her salary.
I would ask readers what personal experience tells them is more common--men who are unwilling to date women who earn a good living (women who are often attractive thanks to the gym memberships, pricey hairstyles, expensive makeup, and flattering clothes they can afford), or women who are averse to dating and/or marrying below their pay grade?
When he was still single and in residency, a cardiologist friend of mine was as likely to ask out the girl behind the McDonald's counter as he was a fellow doctor. He wasn't unusual in this. Yet while my highly successful women friends might admire the view of an attractive cashier, I've never known any of them to pursue a relationship with one. If the male office assistant isn't asking out the female vice president, chances are it's because he knows he's likely to get shot down, not because he's a sexist.
I'll be blunt. Most women I know would still prefer to pair up with a man who is their professional and financial equal if not superior. And most would still choose to delay marriage in hopes of landing the illusive Mr. Big rather than settle for the cute (and increasingly common) slacker next door. Conversely, most single men I know couldn't care less how much a woman makes provided she's good-looking and fun to be around.
As for the housework thing, maybe (and it's a big maybe), as the study's authors suggest, breadwinning wives do more housework as a silent apology for defying gender norms. Or maybe they do more housework for the same reason they earn more--because they're willing to put in longer hours if gets them better results.
But none of this begins to touch the most glaring gender reality the researchers and reporters ignore: Babies! Nowhere in the study or in any of the stories about it does anyone mention the immense power a child has to reorganize a woman's priorities. Nowhere do they consider that new mothers might discover that they're suddenly as ambitious to raise happy, healthy, successful children as they once were to be professionally successful themselves. As Barnard President Deborah Spar wrote last year, "having babies imposes consequences that cannot, and should not, be denied."
Maybe these wives who cut back their working hours or step out of the workforce entirely aren't bowing to the egos of their Neanderthal husbands, maybe their responding to some other, more all-consuming impulse.
Whatever career ambitions I had before my daughter was born faded immeasurably in the light of her drooling, burbling little face. They didn't disappear, but they began to feel like something that could wait. And they are. I am now one of those women who isn't living up to her full income potential, who works in the nooks and crannies of life at home with kids. In the meantime, the gap between husband's income and mine continues to grow as he strives to pick up the slack and provide financially for us. What a creep.