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Breadwinning Wives and Nervous Husbands

Stashed in: Women, Economics!, Marriage

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This is good: "GIRLS are generally outperforming boys in high school, and then proceeding in greater numbers to attend and graduate from college. And as women take the helm as chief executives of more major corporations, including Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M. and PepsiCo, there are hints that the glass ceiling may be at least cracking, if not breaking."

This is not so good:

There is an obvious disconnect here. Those men who spent their teenage years goofing off and their college years drinking beer shouldn’t be surprised that women who consistently received higher grades and continued further in school might now be earning more money as well. But the evidence suggests that while men tend to applaud their spouses when they help to bring home the bacon, husbands aren’t always as enthusiastic when women start bringing home the filet mignon. And it’s especially troubling that these old-fashioned social norms about gender identity appear to be adversely affecting family formation and stability.

This is the finding of an interesting new paper by Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica and Jessica Pan, three economists who are colleagues of mine at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

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.

And this is fascinating:

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?

That may be impossible to answer, partly because of something I learned long ago from Alvin E. Roth, a Nobel laureate in economics last year. I call it Roth’s rule: In equilibrium, it’s impossible for you to be happier than your spouse.

If you and your spouse both understand that rule, you’re both likely to be happier — regardless of how much money either of you make.

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