Tuesday, December 18, 2012

When women dare to outearn men

December 18, 2012

Of the many glass ceilings constraining women's careers, one is particularly important yet often overlooked: the wage of the husband. In a new paper, Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica (both University of Chicago) and Jessica Pan (National University of Singapore) show how thick this ceiling really is.

In a country like America, in which men on average earn more than women, it follows almost naturally that the wife often earns less. However, the pattern of relative income of men and women at young(ish) ages in a marriage is striking: there are many young couples in which the wife earns slightly less than her husband, or just as much, but far fewer as relative income reverses, that is, when the wife earns more. And this pattern is not driven by older couples; the researcher only use couples around the time of first marriage (22-34) for this part of the study. Despite some progress in recent decades, the social norm "men should earn more than their wives" seems to be alive and well.

That is not only a curious fact; it has consequences, too. The researchers show that women with the potential to earn more than their husbands quit their job altogether more often than otherwise similar women in comparable families. If they do work, they use their earnings potential to a lower degree. That's bad news for the economy.

The paper offers some hints as to why women who could outearn their husbands choose not to work at all, or to work less. For instance, norms affect the division of household chores, but economically in the wrong direction. If a husband earns less than his wife, she might rightfully expect him to take on some additional responsibilities at home. In reality, however, if she earns more, she spends more time taking care of the household and their children than otherwise similar women in comparable families, who earn less than the husband. One wonders whether such women feel compelled to soothe their husbands' unease at earning less.


Read the Paper

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