When Wives Earn More Than Their Husbands, Both Partners Are in Denial About It

This leads to inequality far beyond our wallets.

Wedding cake toppers on scale.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

One of the most profound social changes in the past 50 years has been the mass entrance of women into the workforce. Although the gender wage gap continues to exist across every country and occupation, more and more women are bringing home larger paychecks than their boyfriends, partners, or husbands. A Pew Research Center study from 2013 found that 40 percent of American households include a woman as the main or sole earner. But as recent research from the Census Bureau shows, when women out-earn their husbands, both partners tend to be in denial about this fact.

The report looked at earnings data from 2003–13 and assessed the difference between what respondents reported as their income on the survey and their actual income from tax records. The researchers found that people tended to underreport women’s wages and over-report men’s earnings likely to conform with the societal norm that men should out-earn their female partners. These findings should be anxiety-provoking for everyone: Regardless of how much money women are bringing into their homes, couples feel the need to minimize their contributions to protect a stereotype or hold on to a caricature of women as housewives and their husbands as Mad Men–esque business men.

This study echoes others that show women earning more has far-reaching societal costs. In 2013, researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, also using census data, found that marriage rates decline when a woman has the potential to out-earn her husband. When a woman makes more than her husband, the likelihood of divorce increases by 50 percent.

Paychecks aren’t the only place where there’s a disconnect between what really happens and what men report. In a 2015 Pew Research study, 41 percent of men reported that households tasks in their home were shared equally between the couple, while 64 percent of women said that they take on the larger share of domestic labor.

Women are generally expected to take on the lion’s share of household tasks, regardless of her earnings. Women also tend to take on “invisible” household tasks, such as booking appointments, finding doctors, organizing school calendars, and delegating. Sociologist Susan Walzer interviewed 23 couples who had just welcomed a new baby into their family and found that women disproportionately completed most of the “mental, and emotional work of childcare and household maintenance.” A 2014 study by Yasemin Besen-Cassino and Dan Cassino found that in heterosexual relationships when a husband is out-earned by his wife, he does less housework, except for cooking. The authors concluded that this was often due to “gender role threat” and that men were perhaps seeking to reassert their dominance by avoiding chores that they considered “feminine.”

But men are doing more housework than they used to, and millennial men seem to have a more egalitarian view of work and gender. Time magazine reported in 2016 that millennial men find the traditional breadwinner role to be “stressful and depressing,” so perhaps outlooks are shifting. And the misreporting of women’s income in the census study walks back much of the success that these women have earned in their careers. Rather than being proud of their income, they’re hiding it by fudging the numbers. When men lie about their wives earning more, they reveal a level of low self-esteem that is worrying. So what can women who earn more than their male partners do to ensure they are discussing and addressing the gap fully?

Anne Hawkins, a marketing specialist, knew in advance that she would likely out-earn her husband, Chris, a teacher. By being honest about their differences in potential income from the very beginning, they successfully navigated any potential pride issues: “Our entire relationship dynamic rests on us as people, rather than us as representatives of our respective genders. Realizing that we would have a non-traditional earning balance was a major catalyst for communicating openly and intentionally about that dynamic,” she says.

When she was single, Amber Soletti found many men were not confident enough to date a financially independent woman. But she is now engaged to a man who admires her successful career despite a massive wage gap in her favor. Soletti points out that if both partners have equally demanding careers, their love life can sometimes suffer: “He cooks for me, he cleans the house, does the laundry, takes care of our cats, and everything in between. He’s also emotionally supportive after I have a stressful day or week. Without his contributions, I could not be as successful as I am,” she says. But working out an arrangement like this means having to be honest about who is contributing what, something we know couples seem to struggle to do.

Discussions about money can be difficult, but as gender roles continue to be in flux and our attitudes toward work and marriage shift, these conversations should become more common. We all need to discard our outdated notions of roles within a marriage and a family, and women must celebrate their successes outside the home rather than trying to minimize their contributions. By letting go of our socialized expectations of how much men and women should earn and how much housework they should complete, we can work toward truly balanced partnerships. But the first step is acknowledging we aren’t there yet. That’s going to take more honesty from all of us.