Almost half of women in opposite-sex marriages earn as much as or more than their husbands, a share that's tripled since the early 1970s. Yet even women who out-earn their male spouses undertake more unpaid labor such as childcare and housework, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.
About 16% of wives are the breadwinners in their families, while another 29% earn roughly the same amount as their husbands, according to the analysis, which is based on several sources of data including the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Time Use Survey. That means a combined 45% of women earn the same or more than their male spouses, almost triple the share that did so in 1972, Pew said.
At the same time, 55% of husbands earn more than their wives — still representing a majority of opposite-sex marriages, but marking a sharp decline from 85% half a century ago, the analysis found.
Even though wives are increasingly earning the same or more than their husbands, marriages remain unbalanced when it comes to childcare and housework. Women spend more time on unpaid chores and caregiving, while their spouses are freed up to spend more time on leisure and paid work.
"Women do much more work in the home than men even when they out-earn their husband," said Kate Mangino, a gender expert and the author of "Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home."The effect is that some women report not being able to reach their professional and income potential — they feel they can't volunteer for that trip, even if it might lead to a promotion, because of the work at home."
Husbands, meanwhile, have hours of extra time each week to spend on leisure or work, Pew found. That allows men "endless opportunities," according to Mangino. The husband can learn "a hobby, he could sleep, he could go back to school or take a class that could make more money in the future," she said.
Such divisions can mean that many women may not be able to achieve their earnings potential, harming not only their individual but their family's financial outlook, she added. But it also hurts husbands, who may not develop the social and emotional ties to their families that lead to healthy outcomes, she added.
Such disparities have increasingly been called out by sociologists and labor experts — not to mention women themselves. One study in the British Medical Journal noted that unpaid work isn't often valued economically while lowering the quality of life for billions of women around the globe.
There's only one type of opposite-sex marriage where women don't perform more unpaid work than their husbands: When the wife is the sole breadwinner, Pew found. But even then, the husband and wife perform the same amount of time on household chores each week.
Women in equal-earning marriages have annual median incomes of about $60,000, while their spouses earn $62,000, Pew said. Breadwinner wives earn median annual incomes of about $88,000, compared with $35,000 for their husbands, it found.
Men who are breadwinners earn median annual incomes of about $96,000 annually, while their wives earn about $30,000, Pew said.
A "pervasive social norm"
Gender roles tie into this uneven split, with some of the behaviors likely stemming from how society values men's contributions versus women's. For instance, a majority of Americans say that men's contributions are valued more at work than at home, with only 35% saying they are valued equally.
Meanwhile, about half of Americans say women's contributions at work and home have equal value, with about 1 in 3 saying that their contributions to home life are worth more than their paid work.
"We have this pervasive social norm that a man's greatest family contribution is income and women's greatest family contribution is caregiving," Mangino said. "A lot of people would argue with me and say it's outdated, but then you dig into the 'why' behind the data and push people in interviews, and people would say, 'She's just better with the kids than I am,' or 'She just knows what to do'."
These views translate into concrete differences in the daily lives of American husbands and wives, Pew's study found.
Husbands in so-called egalitarian marriages, where they earn the same as their wives, spend about 3.5 more hours per week on leisure activities than their wives. Meanwhile, the women in those marriages spend a combined 4.5 more hours on caregiving and housework than their husbands.
Even in marriages where women earn more, wives are spending almost 3.5 hours more per week on caregiving and household chores than their husbands, Pew found.
In other words, women may not only be bringing home the bacon, but also cooking the bacon and scrubbing out the pan afterwards.
The type of chores that men and women do also differ, Mangino noted. Women often handle more routine and indoor tasks than their husbands, such as cooking, cleaning and bathing the children — chores that must be done daily or else chaos can erupt.
Husbands, by contrast, typically take on outdoor and intermittent jobs such as mowing the lawn — chores that can be skipped for for a week, if needed. Those outdoor tasks generally require much less time than the indoor chores, she added.
"I have had countess people come back and say, 'What you are saying is wrong: I do the outside jobs, my wife does the inside, and it's 50/50'," she said. "But it's nowhere near 50/50 — it's more like a 75/25 range."
Why wives are earning more
One reason for the increase in women who are breadwinners: an increasing share of marriages where women are more educated than their husbands, Pew noted.
Women now dominate college campuses, with almost two women students for every man attending college, economists at the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank noted in a research report last month. That's a reversal from 1970, when men far outnumbered women in college enrollment, they noted.
"Wives with more formal education are more likely to out-earn their husbands," Pew noted. "Nearly one-in-five wives (19%) who have completed at least a bachelor's degree are the sole or primary breadwinner in their marriage."
Black women and those without children are also more likely be in egalitarian marriages or earn more than their husbands, Pew noted. Women with one or two children are also more likely to earn the same or more than their husbands as than with three or more kids.
"Declining family size may be part of the explanation for the growing share of breadwinner wives from 1972 to 2002," the report said.
Despite these findings, it's possible to change the dynamics in opposite-sex marriages to create more equal partnerships, Mangino noted.
"It's easy if you start in a relationship, because if you can set norms for the beginning about equity, that is much easier," she noted. "You both have to want it. It doesn't work if one person is pushing it and the other person is being dragged along."
Another obstacle: workplace norms that suggest men shouldn't take time for parental leave or to care for children, she added. That suggests that changes also need to take place in U.S. work culture to.
"More and more new dads are also figuring it out and want to be involved in their kids' lives," she noted.
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