Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Female Breadwinner Perplex

It’s almost as though God wanted to answer Megyn Kelly’s prayer.

You recall that Kelly, in a now-famous rant, excoriated Erick Erickson in these terms: “Who died and made you scientist-in-chief.”

I posted about the kerfuffle yesterday.

Since Kelly was obviously on the lookout for a scientist-in-chief to answer her questions about female breadwinners, The New York Times has provided a column by Richard Thaler. You may know that Thaler is a University of Chicago professor who was one of the founders of the new science of behavioral finance.

Naturally, Thaler has to show that he is not a conservative Neanderthal so he makes the customary asides about how this whole breadwinner problem is all a matter of social norms.

He would be more persuasive if he could trot out a few human communities where women are primary breadwinners and where the communities are not afflicted with multiple social pathologies.

Otherwise, we are going to have to learn how to emulate the fine example set by bonobo communities. Great scientific minds seem to believe that those primates have set the standard in female breadwinner families.

Thaler understands well that explanations are not facts. Thus, he reports the facts fairly and objectively.

In particular, he shares the research of several of his colleagues. Their study show how real men and real women react when a woman out-earns or might out-earn a man.

Thaler explains:

Such developments should encourage aspiring young women to believe that social norms are changing, and that barriers to success are dropping. But a new study reveals that women’s gains on the economic front may be contributing to a decline in the formation and stability of marriages.

One reason for this decline may be that women with greater earning power have greater economic security that allows them to leave bad marriages. Yet another possibility is that many men seem to be clinging to a social norm from the “Mad Men” days: that the husband should be the primary earner in a family.

On one point I am disappointed. Thaler is far too intelligent to repeat the mindless bromide about how the male breadwinner role was an invention of the American 1950s.

The study performed by his colleagues shows that when women earn more than their husbands it is bad for their marriages.

Theoretically, Thaler says, married couples should be happy to see more money flowing into the family coffers. They should not care who is bringing home the bacon or the filet mignon. In the real world, couples do care:

Suppose that both men and women are happier — all else being equal — the more money their spouse makes. In such a world, couples wouldn’t care whether the man or woman earns more, so the population of couples would have what we call a “normal distribution,” and would be captured in a bell-shaped curve. But that’s not what we see in the real-world data.

Instead, there is a sharp drop in the number of male-female couples at exactly the point where the woman starts to earn more than half of household income.

You can blame this on social norms and outmoded gender identity expectations. What if social norms reflect a behavioral constant that cannot be eradicated with just a little nudge.
What if gender differences are so deeply ingrained in human nature that those who defy them are likely to pay a price.

Thaler is quite correct to point out that men who slack off in school should not be surprised to see women surpassing them in earning power. He does not mention that the school system, as currently designed, encourages girls to succeed while it systematically keeps boys down.

Be that as it may, the data suggest that when women earn more than men the rate of marriage declines:

This may be one of many reasons that the share of young adults in marriages decreased 30 to 50 percent across various racial and ethnic groups from 1970 to 2008. Clearly, a choice to marry later in life explains part of this decline, but Ms. Bertrand and her co-authors estimate that the trend in the percentage of women making more than men explains almost one-fourth of the marriage rate’s decline in the 40 years ended in 2010.

Of course, couples find ways to adapt to a woman’s greater earning potential. Thaler explains:

What happens when a man marries a woman who has the education and skills to earn more than him? The couple can avoid violating the “man earns more” social norm if the woman works part time or leaves the labor force altogether. The authors found evidence of both choices. But what if the woman stays in the labor force and does earn more than her spouse? How does this affect the marriage? The findings here are striking. In such couples, surveys show, both wife and husband generally report being less happy about the marriage.

Female breadwinner marriages are also more likely to lead to divorce:

Given these findings, it isn’t surprising that when a wife earns more than her husband, the risk of divorce rises, too. To study this, the authors used a survey conducted in two waves, 1987-88 and 1992-93. (There were no more recent data available for this particular test.) Then they investigated the likelihood of a divorce in the five-year interval. For this sample, some 12 percent of all couples were divorced during this period — a sobering fact about the stability of marriages in general. But the divorce rate rose by half, to about 18 percent, for couples in which the wife earned more than the husband.

Similarly, a British study showed that in female breadwinner marriages, the male is more likely to have been prescribed Viagra while the female is more likely to have been prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medication.

It is well known, but it is useful for Thaler to point out that female breadwinners also do more of the housework.

Sheryl Sandberg is out there happily promoting her vision of a brave new world where half of the executives are women and half of the homemakers are men. Apparently, when women become high powered executives and professionals they still do more of the housework.

The reason has more to do with male pride than with social norms, but apparently behavioral economics has not quite gotten a grip on the male pride factor.

Thaler hints at it when he writes:

Is there any way to tell whether it’s the wife or the husband who becomes unhappy when the wife earns more? Does he think that she is threatening his manliness, or does she think that he’s a slacker?

The best answer is: all of the above.


n.n said...

Yes, this is indeed unnecessarily perplexing. The first victim of "progress" seems to have been reason. It has lead to progressive expressions of fanatical behavior. Women, and men, seem to be less capable of moderation.

There is a biological basis for males to be the "breadwinners". This does not, and should not, preclude women from contributing in a complementary form, which will vary throughout her lifetime.

This is not complicated at all. It does require women, in particular, to curb their egos, and an investment from both women and men.

The second victim of "progress" has been an investment orientation. Both women, and men, are now more likely to dream of material, physical, and ego instant (or immediate) gratification, which, other than for a select few, cannot be realized without consequences.

Perhaps we can genetically engineer men to become passive, compliant servants. A little estrogen during their formative years, and indoctrination throughout their lifetime, should "cure" them of their masculine properties.

JP said...

"Similarly, a British study showed that in female breadwinner marriages, the male is more likely to have been prescribed Viagra while the female is more likely to have been prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medication."

There may be some interplay with the Protestant Work Ethic in play here, as well that could make the problems worse.

(Note that I'm not saying that the Protestant work ethic is the *cause* of the problems, only that it could make the problems *worse*)

Bobbye said...

These issues are not new at all. Aristotle in Politics Book 2 details how women being in control financially and culturely destroyed Sparta. Polybius in his Histories Book 36 says this of Greece:" 4 But as for matters the efficient and final cause of which it is possible to

discover we should not, I think, put them down to divine action. 5 For instance, take the following

case. In our own time the whole of Greece has been subject to a low birth-rate and a general

decrease of the population, owing to which cities have become deserted and the land has ceased to

yield fruit, although there have neither been continuous wars nor epidemics. 6 If, then, any

p385one had advised us to send and ask the gods about this, and find out what we ought to say or

do, to increase in number and make our cities more populous, would it not seem absurd, the cause of

the evil being evident and the remedy being in our own hands?º 7 For as men had fallen into such a

state of pretentiousness, avarice, and indolence that they did not wish to marry, or if they

married to rear the children born to them, or at most as a rule but one or two of them, so as to

leave these in affluence and bring them up to waste their substance, the evil rapidly and

insensibly grew. 8 For in cases where of one or two children the one was carried off by war and the

other by sickness, it is evident that the houses must have been left unoccupied, and as in the case

of swarms of bees, so by small degrees cities became resourceless and feeble. 9 About this it was

of no use at all to ask the gods to suggest a means of deliverance from such an evil. 10 For any

ordinary man will tell you that the most effectual cure had to be men's own action, in either

striving after other objects, or if not, in passing laws making it compulsory to rear children.

Neither prophets nor magic were here of any service," If man could ever learn by history we wouldn't have these problems. We would have other problems.

Bobbye said...

As a side note: Aristotle blamed the women, Polybius blamed the men. That's culture at work.

Anonymous said...

Personal bias in such matters is best explained by the concept of mimetic desire.

In a culture where girls and boys observe the men bring money to women as the norm, mimetic desire, to be like the normal parents, leads to most men wanting to earn money to bring to women, and most women wanting men to bring them money.

Black Elk said, of the fighting between the Lakota peoples and the invading culture: "Up in the Black Hills the Wasichu found much of the little yellow metal which they worship and it makes them crazy."

Why did Black Elk lack an appetite for little yellow metal, and why did he think this made the "civilized" apes crazy?

The theory of mimetic desire explains in part the cultural norms and deviations or differing desires that lead to cultural change or culture clash. Since the typical scientist ignores the realities of iconic reasoning in early childhood, the typical scientist is unconsciously rooted in moral bias, rather than conscious of his or her bias as just one of several possible outcomes of the socialization of children.

Lastango said...

As is to be expected from an NYT piece, Thaler is careful to direct insinuations of blame only towards men. Men are "clinging to a social norm from Mad Men days". Men have yet to "catch on to this new world and accept the fact that hard-working girls may well turn into highly paid women."

However, when the woman earns the higher income (especially if it's a lot more), women often have more problems with that situation than the men do -- which, in turn, makes life miserable for them both. Worse, many of women's reservations about the income gap are petty and self-serving. That surprises some folks, because the prevailing cultural meme is that women are women are enlightened, wise, fair, and confident. (Men, on the other hand, are intimidated knuckledraggers.) Michael Cunningham, a psychologist at the University of Louisville, points to the problem:

“You want me to tell you that it will get better as you get older and the pool of dating men mature in their jobs. You will be happy if the man is secure and motivated in his own field. (But) when you talk to women who have been out of college long enough to be hardened and what you hear is ambivalence, if not downright hostility, about the income disparity.”

Possible issues include:

== Her social prestige needs are not met because she cannot be publicly proud of her man. Her girlfriends think he’s ridiculous, and she knows her own status is sinking with each smirk from her female and male acquaintances. She’s a box-checking loser who couldn’t do better. Judgement is especially harsh if the man becomes a stay-at-home dad.

== She can’t sustain sexual interest in a dependent man she neither respects nor admires. She is also denied the opportunity to feel feminine, because, in her eyes, the man is no longer sufficiently masculine. He simply has no standing in the relationship to take on that leadership role.

== If the income disparity is large and permanent, it dawns on her that she will never be able to stay home and raise her children. Nor can she return home afterward; she will have to keep working, full-time, year after year, decade after decade to maintain the household. If she harbors an unrealistic hope for another outcome, this will eventually surface as bitterness as it becomes obvious he doesn’t have the drive or the career path to ever catch up.

== If her income is not stratospheric, a steady financial contribution from him would be welcome. If he’s underemployed or an SAHD, he’s not providing it. This is grating, especially if she has status needs associated with lifestyle and consumption. When the woman stays at home, the man thinks it’s his job to be the provider. When the man stays home, she often thinks he’s freeloading.

== When the man is the breadwinner, it’s their money. When the woman is the breadwinner, it’s her money. She resents that she isn’t free to spend it how she chooses, and she is really, really angry about having to give him money. That makes the relationship maternal, defeats her desire to feel looked-after, and drains whatever is left of the sexual energy from the relationship.

Little of this looks good on women; that's why it's necessary to blame men for not having evolved to keep pace with today's heroic uberwoman.

Here are four links to articles about the downsides of woman-as-breadwinner relationships.

(originally this last article was on MSN money. It's not there anymore, but a blogger made this copy.)

Anonymous said...


BINGO! You beat me to it.

You are correct on all points friend.

The problem is women are not able to overcome the genetic and emotional triggers they are programmed with. They have insisted for 50 years that men resist and change their own "neanderthal" programming but women were and still are always blind to their own shortcomings. They have neglected to practice what they preach (as they usually do). Women, I find, are the ultimate purveyors of double standards.

Women are not "evolved" and this is more evident to anyone who is by the mere fact they whine and stamp their feet blaming men for all their problems. It is also convenient as it allows them to never have to look inward and change. Men must always chase an arbitrary and moving goal post but they are already born perfect, merely smothered by the stinky cloak of our maleness.

The high-earners are usually type-A a-holes exactly like the male versions. Probably were never gonna keep them happy or satisfied for long anyhow.

Anonymous said...

As a highly motivated, high wage- earning woman, I never cared that my guy made less or more than I did. I had always been very sought- after in my field, so I could demand a high salary. Keeping myself aware of market vaue helped demand (respectfully) the prevailing market salary for an executive in this field.
I respect my alpha husband even more because he wasn't just looking for a pretty face. He was strong enough to carry two execs in the household. I know this is jiust antectdotal- just one story... But it CAN work.
The woman can't wield her big stick in the house as if it means anything at all. The moment she steps out of the office ( or whatever workplace) she needs to change into the person that best brings harmony at home. This is just as important as daddy switching from "boss" to "daddy" when he gets home to play w kids, a high-drive exec needs to switch to being a wife when she gets home..

Dennis said...

Anon 5:03,
A few years ago we had to remove our oldest daughter and her children from the affects of their father by putting them some where that was away from his influence.
His problem was that he forgot that his family was not in the Army. When he came home he was still the NCOIC. It is not an uncommon problem for people in the military especially given the stresses of war. The military has programs to help members dealt with this problem. Once he got into one of these programs they worked it out.
If one wants a successful marriage then the second one leaves work they need to do what I call a "mind dump" and disconnect from work. They are now a different person with different priorities. It is not easy, but it can be done if one really cares about their family. We are quite capable of being the people we need to be to fulfill both of those roles.
Women better recognize that there are two main reasons, besides the war on males, that they are doing well. Technology and Western Civilization. Both of which they had little to do with its development. Women tinker, and try to undermine, with the foundations of this country to their detriment, especially in the long run.
It is the people who know how it works, can repair, replace, upgrade, et al that keeps that system running. The minute they begin to go on "strike" against what is seen as an unjust society the system is on its way to downfall. All the degrees in "studies, et al will not maintain that society. It is why the guy who picks up one's garbage is so important. Multiply this by those who make things happen and the real power resides there. I can be a "leader," but without someone to lead I am worthless. I can be a great engineer, but without the people to turn my ideas into fact and to provide the logistics I have accomplished little.
Women had better start paying attention to those who make it possible for them to succeed and the systems that engender it. They are putting Western civilization on shaky ground, ignoring the technology that underlies it, and disrespecting the people who make it happen for the appearance of power. Power always corrupts.A corrupt government that can give you everything can as quickly take it away. The man who loves you is more reliable than the government you have made into the man.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I have seen my share of men and women who think they are *superior* to the drafter, the assembler, the maintenance worker, because they possessed a "bigger piece of paper" with their college degree. I've often seen them quickly put in their place.

I also agree with you, the only thing the liberal arts studies degrees produce is more professors in those fields. (How many "gender studies" can we possibly have in any school?)
Thankfully, in my small engineering school 20-25 years ago, I didn't have any of these such courses... Nor did hubby in his...

Dennis said...

Anon 9:33,

Wasn't Rose Hulman by chance?
There were times when I mediated between engineers and technicians where they were talking at each other instead of to each other. The trust level had deteriorated to the point that they were not listening to what the other had to say.
One might say that this is the problem between the sexes as well. The trust level has so degraded that it is difficult to repair. Add in a government that benefits from that distrust and one has what we have now.

Anonymous said...

LOL, Dennis!
Nope, not there.
But fill in the blank, and I'm sure we can name most companies or government entities with at least one person who had to learn his/her lesson that way.
(Or hasn't learned it yet, in some cases!)

The Deuce said...

Apparently, when women become high powered executives and professionals they still do more of the housework.

The reason has more to do with male pride than with social norms, but apparently behavioral economics has not quite gotten a grip on the male pride factor.

Actually, while that's part of it, I think the main part is that being stay-at-home still doesn't make men actually give a damn about the houseplants or what the drapes look like, and being executives doesn't cause women to stop caring about those things. Women are still more motivated to make the home than men, even when they're not actually the homemakers.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

very true...