Studies have long shown that on average, men don’t feel comfortable when they earn less than their female partner, even if it means their shared household benefits increase.
Now, a new study from the Census Bureau finds that some women may understate their income to inflate their male partner’s earning power.
The recent survey on heterosexual married couples suggests that gender norms still influence behavior. In relationships where a woman earns more than her husband, men inflate their income by an average of 2.9 percent. Women who earn more than their husband will deflate their income by 1.5 percent. It was a commonality among participants from different economic, racial and generational backgrounds.
Most men and women continue to hold the expectation that men will be the main breadwinner. A 2018 study found 71 percent of its participants said it is important that the man in a heterosexual relationship is seen as the main income earner. The same Pew Research study found that husbands outearn their wives in 69 percent of marriages, down from 87 percent in 1980.
This discomfort can affect members of each sex differently. Men can feel guilty or inferior for not living up to society’s gendered expectations. They may feel insecure in relationships, which could explain the findings in a study from the University of Chicago that shows when women make just $5,000 more than their male partner, the relationship is at greater risk for divorce.
The recent findings also echo the feelings of guilt some women face when they earn more than their partners. Some women won’t date or marry men who earn less than they do because they feel the man isn’t ambitious enough or fear an uneasy income dynamic that is doomed to fail.
Margaret Signorella, a professor of psychology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Penn State Brandywine, says the findings match what previous studies have found. “If you look at the stereotyping of gender roles, it fits very nicely,” she says.
This month, Pew Research published a new study which also found women were rated less favorably with attributes like “powerful,” “aggressive” and “strong.” The term “provider” was only associated with men.
“Gender stereotypes are a bit different than some of the other social categories that are more related to class, race or ethnicity,” says Signorella. “Women are more likely to accept the views of themselves from the dominant group.”
Women overinflating their male partner’s smaller income may be doing so to keep up gender norms, to look as if they’re doing economically better as a household or it may be an honest misremembering.
It’s not a new phenomenon. It’s just a different manifestation of anxiety about failing to meet gendered expectations. To achieve equality in paychecks and social attitudes means addressing our inherited gender biases.