Mrs. Breadwinner

Derek Thompson at the Atlantic has an interesting article about female breadwinners. He asks, “Why there are so very few marriages where women earn more than their husbands, and why such marriages are so troubled.” Marianne Bertrand, Jessica Pan, and Emir Kamenica hypothesize that there aren’t that many marriages with female-breadwinners, because  husbands hate being out-earned by their wives, and wives hate living with husbands who resent them.

Thompson points to one of their surprising finds.

The most surprising thing was that wives who earn more from paid work also report doing significantly more chores around the house. This doesn’t make much sense, intuitively. For women and men at all income levels, more work in the office usually leads to less time spent doing chores at home. But suddenly, when a wife earns more than her husband, her hours spent on chores and childcare go up.

“Classical economics can’t explain that increase,” Kamenica said. “The only way to make sense of it is compensatory behavior.” In English, please? “Maybe the husband feels threatened, so she does more of the cooking, even though she earns more.”

Ugh on so many levels.


8 thoughts on “Mrs. Breadwinner

  1. 1. The men get depressed, can’t or won’t do household chores, and women do them rather than add stress to a depressed person.
    2. The women feel some social pressure to prove they can still do it all.
    3. The women want things done their way and would rather do it themselves than live with half-done chores.

    Oh wait, I just went and read the article. This is another self-centered “upper middle class” problem, not an exploration of what happens when a working class man is laid off and his pink-collar job wife makes more money, even after he finally finds replacement work because the new job he finds is minimum wage instead of the experienced worker wage he made before.

    Because yeah, I make a lot more than my husband. And since his lay-off 4 years ago, and even though he found another (part-time, low-pay) job a year ago, I don’t lift a finger on household chores except when I want to cook something he can’t. Oh, and I do my own laundry because that’s the one thing he can’t seem to do the way I want it. (We all have our faults–I can’t make pecan pie, and he can.) He does the shopping, the cleaning, the bill paying, the laundry (except my clothes-he does the sheets and towels). He changes the sheets, too. I married a partner, a person who understands we’re on the same team and we’re equals regardless of who is contributing what to the partnership. He’s happy to contribute by hard, unpaid work in the house instead of/in addition to paid work.

    1. Yes, yes, yes! I love your closing: “I married a partner, a person who understands we’re on the same team and we’re equals regardless of who is contributing what to the partnership.”

  2. Somebody needs to tell my husband he hates being out-earned by me and that he should be full of resentment. Twenty-odd years ago, we sat down together and plotted out our move north so I could accept this t-t job. He stepped back from his career path in the big city with pleasure. He didn’t like his old work and I don’t blame him (Big Pharma can be ghastly). Since Autistic Youngest came along, we consider it a blessing that one of us can be under-employed enough to be her safety net.

    A healthy attitude starts with seeing the marriage as a joint enterprise. I bring in much more money, sure, but we work on the entire scheme together. He has better insights about the household maintenance and upkeep, chivies us all to stay fit and does most of the shopping. I cook more because I like it and because it’s part of our limited family time (my spouse’s job runs through the afternoon and evening during the school year).

    I spend more time on household chores than some of my female peers whose husbands out-earn them but only because, even with my good wage, we’re nowhere near the cash-flow of their more impressive dual-income households. We can’t justify a cleaning service, we eat out rarely and I make a hobby of couponing.

  3. Sigh. If life were really this simple to diagnose. I out-earn my husband significantly by design by both of us for a whole bunch of reasons. We share the chores pretty evenly, but if i do end up doing more (which is not infrequent) it’s because I actually enjoy fixing up the house and find it a nice respite from my intense job. My husband is incredibly supportive (he has summers off and I don’t) of me and I am incredibly supportive of him and we split up the chores based on who likes the task more than the other, who has the time, what the kids are doing, etc. etc. It ebbs and flows That’s how life works.

    1. Strongly agree with this. My wife significantly out-earns me as well as working longer hours, and in general I do more of the chores… but one thing she loves is cooking. A not-that-unusual scenario when we talk late in the afternoon is her saying to me “I’ve had a rough day at work, can you pick up X,Y and Z on the way home? I want to try a new recipe!”

      As to the more general point, I wonder if it’s somewhat generational? I know at least one other couple my age (early 30s) in which the husband earns less and does more around the house. A lot of married couples my age that I know had at least one spouse suffer a job loss and tough period finding a new one – and if it happens that the wife ended up earning more we’re at a young enough age that we are still developing these habits. After a couple years of marriage lots of these things are still really being worked out, but after 15 people may become more set in habits formed at a different time in their lives.

  4. I think I’d be very happy if my wife earned more than I do, so long as that meant her earnings went up and not that mine went down (or at least that our total earnings went up.) I do suspect the problem is more limited than the article suggests.

  5. Hmm, the evidence cited seems just as consistent with the hypothesis that women who earn more than their mates are the resentful ones. That was certainly the case in our marriage in its early years: I worked for the state, in a job that basically matched my wife’s private sector job in prestige, and had more power in a lot of ways, but earned far less. Our marriage improved a lot when I moved back to the private sector and we started making equal financial contributions to the family.

    Interestingly, in most years we have been just to the right of the 50% line–in 2012, she earned 56% of the family income, but we seem to get along fine now that we are roughly equal. I think a power imbalance will probably start about at the point where one partner’s income is twice the other’s.

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