When a Wife Earns More

A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by Marianne Bertrand, Jessica Pan, and Emir Kamenica looks at gender identity and its effect on household income. Their findings will depress anyone concerned with gender equality. Here’s the abstract:

We examine causes and consequences of relative income within households. We establish that gender identity – in particular, an aversion to the wife earning more than the husband – impacts marriage formation, the wife’s labor force participation, the wife’s income conditional on working, marriage satisfaction, likelihood of divorce, and the division of home production. The distribution of the share of household income earned by the wife exhibits a sharp cliff at 0.5, which suggests that a couple is less willing to match if her income exceeds his. Within marriage markets, when a randomly chosen woman becomes more likely to earn more than a randomly chosen man, marriage rates decline. Within couples, if the wife’s potential income (based on her demographics) is likely to exceed the husband’s, the wife is less likely to be in the labor force and earns less than her potential if she does work. Couples where the wife earns more than the husband are less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce. Finally, based on time use surveys, the gender gap in non-market work is larger if the wife earns more than the husband.

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  1. David says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Not sure you understand says:

      I’m not sure you’re understanding the paper, or indeed, the way academic economic language works in general. You’re right that correlation is NOT causality, and that is not at all claimed by the paper! The statement that “couples where the wife earns more than the husband are less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce” says NOTHING about causal relationships, only statistical ones.

      Of course, the explanation you are proposing is easily testable: if fighting couples generally tend to have higher female income, then there may be water in what you arguing. But anecdotally, there seem to be many couples with lots of fighting where the man does earn more; I would be surprised if overall statistics found otherwise.

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      • phil says:

        The wording by freakenomics falsely implies causality. Your brain makes an implication from a factually apparently neutral statement. Reword it to see that –“when in less satisfying relationships women earn more”. There’s an automatic human false implication that the writer is trying to push.

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      • Reader says:

        @phil: Huh? The wording by Freakonomics is: “…looks at gender identity and its affect on household income. Their findings will depress anyone concerned with gender equality”. How’s that implying causality or leading to David’s complaint?

        Now the abstract certainly has some implications, but the paper backs them up. Like most credible papers of this kind.

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      • Joe says:

        I agree with Phil here; this wording:
        “Their findings will depress anyone concerned with gender equality.”
        is the problem. That implies a causal link; if it’s just coincidence, then it’s not very interesting, is it? What’s potentially depressing is if the woman outearning the male causes more divorces.

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      • Reader says:

        Sorry Joe, I just don’t agree. If I’m somebody who’s only happy when it’s not raining, and my coworker next to the window tells me there’s a lot of people with open umbrellas outside, that would make me sad. In my opinion, correlation is sufficient to support Freakonomics statement.

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      • Joe says:

        Reader, maybe their umbrellas are because it is too sunny outside?

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    • Reader says:

      Truly unfair to lump this in with “Junk science”, doesn’t sound like you even read the paper and examined the supporting evidence. Maybe you disagree with the inferences, but it sounds more like you simply had a knee-jerk reaction to the abstract. More like a troll than a provider of an informed opinion

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    • Adam says:

      Thank you professor David. Seeing as how this was posted at 1:28 P.M. and you commented 26 minutes later, I’m sure you had enough time to pore over the study’s details before you astutely concluded that “correlation does not equal causation.” Bravo!

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    • Reader says:

      @Joe agreed, or maybe somebody’s offering $20 to everyone who has an open umbrella, or maybe there’s a guy on the roof spraying water on the people below, or whatever. There are always a lot of possibilities, but (again, in my opinion) in the real world of real people, if all you know is that lots of people are walking around with open umbrellas, you’re going to think it’s raining. Knowing the very strong correlation between open umbrellas and rain (even though you understand it’s not causation) is sufficient to reach that conclusion, even knowing there’s a small but non-zero probability it’s wrong.

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      • Joe says:

        Sure, but I don’t think this particular case is obviously linked in the way that the author of the article here seems to. There are lots of reasonable explanations that are unrelated to gender equality and are not harmful to equality.

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    • Jack says:

      Washing my car and watering my lawn sure seem to cause rain! 😀

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  2. kdogg says:

    Can someone explain why this would be true? “Finally, based on time use surveys, the gender gap in non-market work is larger if the wife earns more than the husband.”

    It’s seems like if women earn more they would have less time for non-market work.

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    • todd says:

      It’s in the paper – ‘This result runs counter to standard models of the division of labor within the household (e.g., Becker 1973), which predict a negative relationship between the wife’s share of market income and her relative contribution to home production activities. One explanation for the observed pattern is that, in couples where the wife earns more than the husband, the “threatening” wife takes on a greater share of housework so as to assuage the “threatened” husband’s unease with the situation. The wife, of course, may ultimately get tired of working this “second shift” (Hochschild and Machung 1989), which could be one of the mechanisms behind our results on divorce.’ Bottom of page 4.

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      • pawnman says:

        Or, in my house, the wife just cares more about getting that stuff done than the husband.

        But I’m trying to make more contributions.

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    • Joe J says:

      Posssible ideas off the top of my head. Haven’t read the paper yet.

      1. Earning more does not necessitate more hours. It usually does but not always.
      2. personality, Drive, demanding standards, and hard work are often due to personality traits, which carry both to the workplace and the home.
      3. Division of labor in the home could be more based upon the one who has more desire for the tasks to be done.

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      • Joe says:

        3., for sure, at least in my relationship. I outearn my wife [for now], but she puts in more hours [postdoc in the biological sciences, sigh] and does more of the housework largely because she cares more about it.

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  3. Travis says:

    This may be disappointing to some but I hardly see how it should be surprising to anyone. There have been studies / surveys which recently support this attitude regarding gender roles, even in the feminist media circuit they are universally panned. For example, the unwillingness of women to date unemployed men (while the reverse was not true).

    Ultimately under either progressive/feminist frames of thought, or traditionalist frames of thought, the idea of a man making less money than a woman is something that reflects poorly on him. Under traditionalist approach it’s obvious why: Because the man is “supposed” to support the family. Under a progressive/feminist approach it’s a little more nuanced. But, under feminism the idea of Male Privilege is rife, and the myth that men earn significantly more than women for the same work is pervasive. Combining these two things you have an environment where male under-achievement will be greatly looked down upon. After all they get paid more for the same work AND have all the privilege to get them up into the upper echelons of employment, according to feminist theory.

    So, under either popular framework there will be resentment / inadequacy for a man who makes less than a woman.

    This is only going to get worse as time goes on, as well. More money is spent on education for women, and support systems for men and the networking “advantage” they had in terms of employment is rapidly disappearing with male education going down the toilet (female degrees : male degrees is around 4:3 now). Expect lower rates of coupling/marriage, higher rates of divorce, and higher suicide rates for males going forward. Also expect new feminist media in the tradition of Hana Rosin and The End of Men to further put the “failure” of men on their shoulders.

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    • Lucy says:

      The societal pressure that a man should earn more than his partner is not the reason, rather itself is a reflexion of human nature. The fact that men prefer his partners younger and women prefer her partners more competitive is largely innate, shaped by sexual selection for millions of years. It cannot be changed arbitrarily by social engineering. I don’t think feminism is the reason, rather since some feminists ignore human nature and attribute average gender differences to “social construct”, “stereotypes” or whatever, they are misguided. Individual man and woman should be able to choose his/her gender role, not constrained by traditional gender role but equality shouldn’t be about equal outcomes.

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  4. Kathy says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • AG says:

      One anecdote doesn’t invalidate a study or make it “junk science”. You are the exception, but most people are the rule, assuming the research is thorough and peer-reviewed.

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    • Reader says:

      Sorry, but I have to ask you too whether you read the paper? The authors used US Census data, literally millions of people in the US, to establish the correlation. Are you saying that because you know a several people that don’t match the correlation the paper’s invalid? Junk comment.

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      • James says:

        I wonder, though, if they’re just using census data, how they manage to determine satisfaction? That is, a wife earning significantly less than half the household income might well stay in an unsatisfactory marriage for financial reasons.

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    • Kris says:

      An exception does not break a statistical fact.
      Your anecdotal evidence is just evidence of you and your husband having found a way to coexist beyond traditional gender roles, and for that you have my kudos.

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      • Joe says:

        “statistical fact”? I don’t disagree that the plural of anecdote is not data, but using the phrase “Statistical fact” is pretty much as bad. Statistical correlations are nothing more than correlations – they aren’t “facts”, and no intelligent person would state that even a 99.9% correlation is the same thing as a fact. Highly likely, yes, but 1 in 1000 is not exactly never.

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  5. Teresa says:

    I’d be curious to find out, based on studies, in households where the woman is the breadwinner and the man stays home: (1) who does what housework, how much does each person do, and how does it compare to households where the the man works and the woman stays home? and (2) if kids are involved, how does the burden of parenting break down? IE, who provides the most care to the children? The working mom? The stay-at-home mom? The working dad? The stay-at-home dad?

    Additionally, it would be fascinating to compare opposite sex couple households with same sex couple households.

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    • Impossibly Stupid says:

      I’d be more curious about the factors that *end* the relationships in question; the source of the “dissatisfaction” described. Who does what only matters to the extent that someone is unhappy with the situation. I mean, there are plenty of working women who still *want* to cook (or clean, or whatever), so that would cause less resentment than the cases where that is not true, or more resentment in cases where the man is actually doing housework the woman would prefer to do.

      So while there might be a lot of people inappropriately calling this junk science (and, worse, being inappropriately silenced by Freakonomics’ broken moderation system), it certainly doesn’t seem to be a particularly worthwhile study. We all already know that there is still a cultural bias for women to earn less than men; that is not interesting. What *would* be interesting is a study that showed *why* relationships failed or succeeded when that norm was not in place.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        I’d like to know whether this holds true for all the “types” of men who are earning less money than their wives. Is this true for “structural” lower earnings (he clerks at a convenience store, she teaches Kindergarten)? Is it true for temporary, involuntary lower earnings (he was laid off, her job is steady)?

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      • Leslie says:

        The “whys” can only be asked after the “what” is established. It would not make sense to run a study that asks why (marriages where the woman makes more money ends in more divorce) before running this study to measure the prevalence rate of this phenomenon. So, your comment would be better phrased, “Future research should look into the “whys.” But somehow, I think that study might already be on these and other researchers’ agendas :)

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  6. Rob Brooks says:

    Wonderful paper. Very interesting indeed.

    Folks who are interested in this paper might also be interested in the “Cooperation and Conflict in the Family” conference – to be held at UNSW in Sydney next February. I hope you don’t mind me posting the link here


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  7. Inderpreet says:

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  8. meanonsunday says:

    Unfortunately the authors reveal their bias from the very beginning by posing only two alternatives; that men and women both have equal preference for a partner with higher income, or that men prefer a partner with lower income. However, the evidence that they claim supports the latter view can be equally well explained by a third alternative; that women have a strong preference for a partner with higher income, while men have a weak preference or are neutral regarding partner income.

    There is in fact strong evidence from previous studies that this is the case, yet the authors refuse to even consider it by discounting data regarding each partner’s marital satisfaction (one wonders if they did this only after analyzing the data and finding the conclusion to be inconvenient for their hypothesis).

    Finally, regarding the findings on non-market work, this is presented with no consideration of mitigating factors. There is a presumption that the partner with the higher income must also be working more hours. Do male partners with lower incomes work longer hours to increase their income, commute further for a higher paying job, have jobs with less flexible schedules?

    I don’t totally discount the paper’s thesis. There may in fact be a subgroup of men who prefer partners with lower incomes. However this paper does not provide evidence for this, and I suspect that if such a group exists it consists primarily of older men with very high incomes. While the “average” man might not make income the primary attribute in choosing a partner I cannot imagine that he would view higher income as anything other that a positive in choosing between two otherwise similar women.

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    • Andreas Moser says:

      I agree with your assessment that women look more at their partner’s income than men do. That doesn’t even mean that men are less shallow, they look at the boobs and the butt.
      And that in my mind partially explains the gender wage gap because women don’t need to earn that much to get married, while men can always increase their chances with any additional $ that they earn: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/gender-pay-gap/

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      • James says:

        You know, even many of us who are supposedly shallow look at other parts of the anatomy too.

        I do wonder just how shallow it really is, though. I want a partner that shares my interests, a good many of which involve doing physically active, even strenuous, outdoor activities. If a random woman is obviously overweight & out of shape, how likely is it that she’s going to want that kind of life? And vice versa, of course: if I had a beer gut lapping over my belt, I would not expect those women to have much interest in me :-)

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      • Erica says:

        A lot of girls earn their own money these days so they don’t need to care as much about their significant other’s income. If a guy thinks that having a good job is adequate, but can’t make it to the gym, than he might be pricing himself out of the market.

        Besides, health care costs are expensive. Why choose someone likely to get diabetes?

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