The Tradeoffs That Still Plague Working Women
The wage gap is closing. The housework gap, not so much.
Posted March 16, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Today, women face the trade-off of excelling at family (caretaking) or career (your passion).
- Women who pursue careers feel pressure to also do the lion’s share of household labor.
- As we close the gender wage gap, the unpaid household labor gap widens.
I recently asked whether career or family is more important to hundreds of young, career-minded undergraduate women at a large midwestern university. Today, women earn 57.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60.1 percent of master’s, and 53.5 percent of doctoral degrees.1 Roughly 54 percent of women out-earn their partners, with millennial and Gen X women accounting for 30 percent of the female breadwinners.2 The gender pay gap has narrowed and is projected to close in a few states around 2040.3
So, naturally, when I asked some of my colleagues to predict how university women would answer my question, most guessed they would say career. But it turns out that this was not the case.
Women’s answers to my question depended on the audience. When there were lots of men on campus, university women chose family.4 When the men disappeared, they chose a career. Men’s answers remained unmoved by the audience, and other scholars have found similar effects.5
What’s Going On?
University women’s shifting answers to my question reflect the internal pressure women feel to uphold gendered social norms that herald women as caretakers, especially in front of men, who tend to prefer nurturing women to ambitious women.6 These gendered social norms were crystalized when women were constrained to the role of caregiver.
Throughout history, women became pregnant and nursed young children. Before birth control, if you were a woman, you were almost certainly a mother.
And, for most of human history, men controlled the wealth. This means that, ancestrally, being liked by a man was the difference between life and death for any woman and her children.
Because survival was on the line, evolution worked its magic and endowed women with a strong desire to please other people (especially men). Even as we attempt to create equity at work and in marriages, the socially imposed norms that place value on marriage and family for women remain.7
The reality is that the ability to support a family financially is only an asset for men in the dating world. A high-earning woman does not receive the same kind of attention from men eager to take on unpaid childcare as a man would if the shoe were on the other foot.
Women today face a trade-off: excel at family (caretaking) or career (your passion). Women who pursue careers feel pressure (personally and from others) to also do the lion’s share of household labor.
This combination is eviscerating women’s mental health. The “problem that has no name,” popularized by author and activist Betty Friedan in 1963’s The Feminine Mystique, has unsuspectingly metastasized.
As We Close the Gender Wage Gap, the Unpaid Household Labor Gap Widens
Working women in heterosexual marriages do more care work at home than housewives of the 1950s and 60s.8 Research finds that women who earn more than their husbands often take on more unpaid labor at home than those who earn less,9 perhaps to ease discord.
Recent data from heterosexual married couples with female breadwinners who provide 80-100 percent of the household income found only 38 percent reported that the wife was the primary breadwinner.10 That means that 62 percent of couples with female breadwinners falsely reported that the man is the breadwinner! Even high-earning women are expected to be the primary caregivers at home, and both men and women have the reluctance to admit counter-normative household earnings.
Studies of stay-at-home men who contribute more to unpaid than paid labor found that they tend to dedicate most of their time at home to “masculine-type” housework, such as yard work,11 leaving much of the other housework for their wives. For high-earning, dual-career couples, even the most vocally supportive male partners do not alter their schedule to help at home.12
Perhaps it’s not surprising that today’s married men and single women have higher levels of life satisfaction than married women.13 The relationship between life satisfaction and decreased mortality was evidenced only for married men and single women! Married women are overwhelmed and sick, and many are choosing divorce.14
This is probably why I’m often asked, “If women are so stressed out, do they really want careers in the first place?” The answer is, unequivocally, yes. Girls become interested in and perform as well as (or better than) boys in nearly every field. The part of the brain that leads boys and girls to become curious about a particular trade or hobby was forged during a time when a gendered division of labor did not exist. For most of hominid (or primate) history, babies were born with the ability to walk and do many things on their own. Our distant female ancestors had more freedom to follow their hearts’ desires because they did not have to invest as much time in childcare.
But as humans evolved larger brains, recent evolution selected for the birth of underdeveloped babies with a long developmental period outside the womb. To keep helpless babies alive, pair bonds evolved. Girls now felt “the push” toward nurturing (more so than most boys) that enabled caring for babies who couldn’t even nurse without assistance.
Then, about 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution emerged. Humans were no longer nomadic because we had to stay where the crops were. As resources grew, home fronts needed defending. Men now had the ability to fight to gain power and build wealth.
Agriculture introduced inequality, not just in society, but between the sexes. Women became a resource. Marriage was invented to bind women to men because paternity certainty became critical, as male children inherited their father’s wealth. Social values that prized nurturing roles for women were now on steroids.
When a brain built to desire individual passion pursuits and nurturing meets a modern world of opportunity, the net result for many women is turmoil.
What Can We Do?
While we cannot change the architecture of the human brain, there are viable workarounds.
- Live near extended family who can provide help. Studies show that people who live near family are happier, and the extra hands on deck may be one big reason.
- Outsource if you have the means. If affordable, you can hire childcare support, grocery delivery, housecleaning, and food prep assistance.
- Be mindful of your network of friends. Spend time with people who don’t make you feel bad about your choices.
- Dedicate two to four hours a day to your most important tasks for work. Save work that doesn’t require much brain power for other times (e.g., phone calls while waiting in the pickup line at school).
- Have a plan for distributing care work before children enter the picture. This is particularly important (and difficult) if you enter a marriage with a man who is older and more advanced in his career than you are.
- Consider a plan that includes specializations in unpaid labor chores. Households, like organizations, often run more efficiently when each person specializes in, rather than shares, a type of labor.15 With specialization can come greater interdependence between partners, which breeds relationship satisfaction.16
- Stay single unless you find a partnership of equity. Tune in to how your partner responds to your needs before marriage and children.
- Freeze your eggs. For some young women, the modern option of freezing eggs takes the pressure off the dating game. It allows time to get to know a partner better and build wealth simultaneously.
- Listen to your partner and make sure your partner is listening to you. Ask your partner to repeat what they heard you say to ensure you are on the same page.
- Always come from a place of love when asking for a behavior change. For every behavior you want to change, discuss several positive things your partner is doing.
If the gender pay gap is to close, the gender household gap must close with it. We must change what we value. As a society, we still implicitly value nurturing women and competitive men. It even shows up in the way we speak to young boys (“champ”) and girls (“my sweet angel”).
We must make a deliberate effort to overcome default norms to ensure boys and girls hear, see, and feel that their value is found in both ambition and nurturing. This narrative must thread through our homes, schools, governments, and workplaces. It must guide our behavior.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Onjira Leibe/Shutterstock
1-United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2019). Women in the labor force: A databook. BLS Reports.
2-Businesswire (2021). Younger women are increasingly earning the title of “breadwinner.” https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20210308005652/en/Wells-Fargo-Younger-Women-Are-Increasingly-Earning-the-Title-of-%E2%80%9CBreadwinner%E2%80%9D
3-Status of Women in the States (2017). http://statusofwomendata.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/R476.pdf
4-Durante, K. M., Griskevicius, V., Simpson, J. A., Cantú, S. M., & Tybur, J. M. (2012). Sex ratio and women's career choice: Does a scarcity of men lead women to choose briefcase over baby? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(1), 121.
5-Bursztyn, L., Fujiwara, T., & Pallais, A. (2017). ‘Acting wife’: Marriage market incentives and labor market investments. American Economic Review, 107(11), 3288-3319.
6-Raymond Fisman, Sheena S. Iyengar, Emir Kamenica, Itamar Simonson, Gender Differences in Mate Selection: Evidence From a Speed Dating Experiment, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 121, Issue 2, May 2006, Pages 673–697, https://doi.org/10.1162/qjec.2006.121.2.673
7-Wood, W., & Eagly, A. H. (2002). A cross-cultural analysis of the behavior of women and men: Implications for the origins of sex differences. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 699–727.
8-Pew Research Center. (2013). Modern Parenthood: Roles of Moms and Dads Converge as they Balance Work and Family. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
9-Syrda, J. (2021). Gendered housework: Spousal relative income, parenthood and traditional gender identity norms. Work, Employment and Society, 09500170211069780.
10-Chesley, N. (2016). What does it mean to be a “breadwinner” mother? Journal of Family Issues, 38(18), 2594-2619.
11-Schneider, D. (2012). Gender deviance and household work: The role of occupation. American Journal of Sociology, 117(4), 1029-1072.
12-Stone, P., & Lovejoy, M. (2004). Fast-Track Women and the “Choice” to Stay Home. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 596(1), 62–83. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716204268552
13-Lei Ma & Danan Gu (2022) The role of marriage in the life satisfaction and mortality association at older ages: age and sex differences, Aging & Mental Health, DOI: 10.1080/13607863.2022.2039097
14-Parker, G., Durante, K. M., Hill, S. E., & Haselton, M. G. (2022). Why women choose divorce: An evolutionary perspective. Current Opinion in Psychology, 43, 300-306.
15-Becker G: A treatise on the family. Enlarged edition. Harvard University Press; 1981 .
16-Rusbult CE: A longitudinal test of the investment model: the development (and deterioration) of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. J Pers Soc Psychol 1983, 45:101–117.