New Census Bureau research, comparing the amount of money couples report to the Census with “true” earnings from IRS tax records, shows a surprising result: when women in different-sex couples earn more than their male spouses, “[h]usbands say they earn more than they are and wives underreport their income.” Both spouses exaggerate the man’s earnings and minimize the women’s earnings, although men will overstate their own earnings less than women do (but devalue their spouse’s earnings more). This issue affects nearly one-third of couples in the United States. According to a 2017 publication by Pew, 28% of women who are married or cohabitating earn more than their spouse or partner.
The gendered social norm underlying this phenomenon is one we have all heard of: the male breadwinner. The perception that a man must “provide” for his family is deep-seated in the United States. The same Pew study found that 71-72% of people believe that being able to financially support a family is important for a man to be a good partner, compared to 25% of men (and 30%) of women believing the same for women. Although it may seem at first blush like men are held to a higher standard and bear the burden of this stereotype, the male breadwinner stereotype is instead more harmful to women. In short, it leads people to believe that a woman’s ability to provide for her family is less valuable than a man’s.
When a woman’s contribution to her family isn’t deemed valuable from a societal perspective, she can face discrimination in the workplace that men do not face. Because people believe it is not important for a woman to be a breadwinner, women’s earnings are not prioritized. Women do not receive raises, bonuses, and promotions at the same rate as men do because women are perceived not to “need” them as much. Stories like this have repeatedly shown up in recent pay discrimination cases.
And other research suggests that women who actually do earn more than their male spouses can suffer doubly because of this stereotype: women who earn more than their male partner are more likely to do significantly more housework and childcare, perhaps to compensate for the threat that their high-earning potential poses to the male spouse’s masculinity. Perhaps it is this same looming threat that leads couples to overreport the man’s income and underreport the woman’s.
Buying into these stereotypes, though, only serves to keep them alive. We live in a world where a third of these women out-earn their male partner, and that number is growing. It is time for people to reject the idea that financial support can or should come from a man, and for women breadwinners to take pride in their ability to bring in the dough.
If you believe you are being paid unfairly because of your gender, contact an experienced employment attorney at Sanford Heisler Sharp, which has offices in Washington, D.C., New York City, Baltimore, Nashville, San Francisco, and San Diego.