1 of 4
Rolf family photo
Rachel and Brian Rolf are happy with their division of labor. Although it's mot traditional and she makes more money than he does, they both contribute financially and in terms of household chores in ways that make their lives run smoothly.

SALT LAKE CITY — Women who earn more money than their husbands — now about one-fourth of heterosexual married couples, or 15 million — tend to be less happy than the men they married — and also less happy than women who earn less than their husbands.

Experts call it a "happiness penalty." And consensus seems to be that much of the distress that breadwinner women feel results from their so-called "second shift" at home. It may boil down to how much more work overall those women do, including housework and child care, compared to their husbands.

That's according to Wendy Wang, director of research at the Institute for Family Studies. The institute just released a report on married couples with "breadwinner" wives. In collaboration with Brigham Young University's Wheatley Institution, the study surveyed married U.S. adults ages 18 to 50.

"I really hope husbands can take the message of this report and do more housework," said Wang. "It would help their partner to have better life satisfaction."

Mary Archbold

Of women who out-earn their spouses, 56 percent are very satisfied with their family life, compared to almost 70 percent of women who earn less than their husbands. For men, there was no significant difference in life satisfaction.

Wang found that 41 percent of the women who out-earn their husbands also take the lead in housework, a so-called "second shift." When men are the breadwinners, only 14 percent of them also take the lead in housework, too.

"These women are somehow doing a lot more at home, though they are earning more money than their husband, so these added burdens will affect their happiness," she said.

In 22 percent of married households with children under 18, moms earn more than their husbands. And those with children at home are significantly less happy than breadwinner women overall or than their husbands.

More than a third of black women out-earn their husbands.

Olga Stoddard, an assistant professor of economics at BYU, said the effects for couples could be serious. When women out-earn men, they report not only lower life satisfaction, but also greater stress in marriage, and those couples are more likely to divorce.

Gender norms also exert pressure.

"Consensus seems to be that traditional gender norms are entrenched in how people perceive what their identity should revolve around and how they are to behave," Stoddard said. "There are strong gender norms that husbands should earn more than their wives. That could be affecting behavior in couples where the wife out-earns the husband."

Mary Archbold

She added, "It is consistent that women's success in the workplace seems to be overpenalized at home."

Some of the difference is probably self-imposed, said Stoddard. Women may feel like they need to compensate for breaking with tradition by working harder at home. "It's plausible that this causes all sorts of problems. Working this double shift ... imposes an extra burden that is stressful and overwhelming."

Women at work

Both men and women are employed in about 70 percent of married couples. And most of the time, men earn more. But women out-earning their spouses is not a millennial generation phenomenon, although younger women are going to college at higher rates than younger men.

The largest share of women who earn more is among couples in their 50s and 60s. Part of that may be that they married older men and those men are now retired. Wang said her analysis captured a moment in time. "Maybe, when they were younger, they earned less than their husbands," Wang said, "but as their kids grew up and left home, their earnings caught up."

Female breadwinners, especially mothers of minor children, scored lower than peers on other measures like marital satisfaction and "whether the couple feels closed and engaged in the relationship." The report said breaking gender norms may make some couples "uncomfortable."

" I really hope husbands can take the message of this report and do more housework. It would help their partner to have better life satisfaction. "
Wendy Wang, director of research at the Institute for Family Studies

Self-reports of how people spend their time are consistent with the theory that household work contributes to dissatisfaction among breadwinner wives. The American Time Use Survey of eight years' data from 2003-2011 showed that in couples where the women earn more than the men, husbands spend about 20.8 hours a week on nonmarket work and child care, while employed wives spend 33.5 hours on home- and child-related tasks.

Women, in fact, spend more time on child care now than they did in the 1960s, and married mothers do more household chores than single mothers, according to some research, Stoddard said.

This and other research finds that couples often misreport their reported earnings to be more in line with tradition, with men saying their earn more than they do and women saying they earn less when the woman is the highest earner. Or they may downplay the importance of the woman's job while bolstering the importance of the man's. The Census Bureau identifies this discrepancy by matching reported earnings with IRS data, Stoddard said.

A study in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World found that the way couples divide work at home matters to relationship satisfaction, the new report said. It also cites a Pew Research Center survey showing that American couples rate "sharing household tasks" in the top three factors for a successful marriage.

Divvying the tasks

Breadwinner moms don't have to be resentful or unhappy. Research suggests when men take on more of the burden at home, couples are closer and more satisfied, Wang said.

That's been the case for Rachel and Brian Rolf, but their division of labor was developed organically, not because they set out to find the perfect balance.

Rolf family photo
The Rolf family: Pete, David, Tom and Brianna behind Rachel and Brian Rolf, while Charlie's in front. Rachel is a middle school math teacher and a "breadwinner" mom, while Brian's on staff at a Salt Lake high school and cheerfully pitches in at home.

For their entire marriage, Rachel Rolf has earned more money than her husband because her college degree and career is more in demand: She's a middle school math teacher, while he's on staff at a local high school.

The Salt Lake couple has five children, ages 14 to 30, three of them from his previous marriage. He raised them alone for a number of years before marrying her. He is, in her words, "used to taking care of things at home."

Before they married, "he would go to work all day and then come home and take care of the kids, so he was used to running a household. And growing up, he always enjoyed making dinner; he likes throwing stuff together and seeing how it turns out. That part's fun for him, while I'm, 'Ew, what should I cook?'"

When they got married and then had young children, she worked at home teaching online classes, but he still would come home from work and do whatever still needed to be done, routinely throwing in a load of wash or tackling other tasks, she said. Home chores are "just something he's always been aware of."

They never had a formal talk about who would do what. Early on, she felt more need to fill traditional roles, like making dinner or seeing that homework got done, she said. But by natural inclination and the realities of their schedules, they started to shift so he did more at home. And they're both happy with their division of labor.

29 comments on this story

Rachel Rolf said she thinks the rising generation of kids she teaches are free of some of the traditional gender expectations that previous generations have felt. Both young males and females feel they can do what they want to do, without fitting into a certain mold, she said. "Kids are open to their potential," she said.

She noted, though, that while girls are more geared to explore career opportunities than in the past, she doesn't hear many boys declare they plan to stay home and raise the kids.