When the blogger Ramit Sethi tried to start a Twitter conversation about men earning less than their female partners, a strange thing happened:
95% of the responses were politically correct answers that made you nod your head. But then I looked in my inbox, which was flooded with private emails from people who were saying the exact opposite thing—only they wouldn’t admit it on Twitter.
It’s a hard one.
Most of us wouldn’t deny in principle that men and women alike have every right to pursue the career they want, and by extension that we shouldn’t mind who earns more in a relationship. And this feels like it should be an exciting change.
But looking around at people I know, things sometimes look a little different. People are diverse, and find happiness in all kinds of ways. One of my oldest and closest friends hasn’t worked outside the home since she was married at a young age. She and her husband pay no attention when well-meaning people advise her to “get a job” now that their two girls are teenagers and need her less in some ways. They know what they know about being happy.
Being in their household is always a delight. The home is always clean, tidy and filled with nice food; the atmosphere and family relationships are highly peaceful, contented and loving. Her husband is immensely proud of providing this lifestyle for her and the girls; and she is proud to be taken care of like this.
Plenty of people would envy this couple—while plenty others would find their arrangement repugnant—and worry about the “example” they are setting for their daughters. We’re all very different.
So why doesn’t it feel ok to express diverse views?
Why did the men and women who didn’t feel ok with women earning more than men feel that they couldn’t admit to this in public?
In one sense it’s wonderful that women earning more than their partners is becoming normalized. But recent research by Dan Cassino apparently found that something else may be going on under the surface at the same time. Male subjects were noticeably affected by unsettling questions about spousal income. Questions that Cassino explains were designed to push men to think about potential threats to their gender roles.
Other research by Cassino and his wife found that when the husband earns less than his wife does, he will often seek to restore the perceived threat to his masculinity by doing less housework.
Anecdotally, some women love to outearn their husbands and are proud of their achievements. Others hesitantly express ambivalence and vulnerability about the impact on their femininity:
I now out-earn my husband by about $60k/year. I find that I often resent him (silently) for not working as hard as he could. I see so much potential in him, but he doesn’t put in the effort to grow his career […] Sometimes I just want to feel “taken care of” and I worry that I never will get to know what that is like.
So there seems to be diversity. Some couples easily embrace the new ways without reservation and are happy to celebrate whichever of them earns the higher income. And these are the people who apparently have the “right” to express their views in public.
Meanwhile, perhaps not everyone is as excited as might be expected, about the social changes making men and women more equal in this area. But there seems to be some kind of taboo about expressing such feelings too openly.
This is nothing unusual. It’s called social desirability bias, defined as the tendency for people to not to reveal behaviors or attitudes that they fear may be viewed as outside the mainstream.
It’s well known for disrupting research into social attitudes on sensitive topics.
And certainly my friend mentioned above feels this pressure, and definitely feels judged by society for her old-fashioned lifestyle.
There’s a fine line here
If people are expressing clearly unacceptable views, about gender, race, age or whatever, we have a duty to take action.
But some modern views have ambiguous and uncertain implications. Is it the best thing for society if everyone has opportunities to reach their potential through pursuing a career? Or is this change having some unforeseen negative consequences on family life and society? Social change can be complex, and it’s possible that both positions are true at once.
Feminism has made enormous gains and opened so many doors for women. But it’s also been criticized in retrospect for forcefully herding women through these doors, even if they all really didn’t want to go there, and haven’t personally benefited from them. The strong belief that women who pursue stay-at-home parenting are always pitiful; and that the men who encourage and facilitate this are sad, patriarchal throwbacks, is a good example of this.
As always it’s about understanding the nuances and the wider issues at stake—this brief article has not even considered other factors in the debate such as race or class. Getting that balance right—and really getting under the skin of what we ourselves and others truly believe and feel, regardless of the fashionable party line, in order to make change real and sustainable—is the exciting challenge before us.