Did you think only Fox News talking heads were freaking out about the rise of female breadwinners and the apocalypse their arrival foretells? Fear not! Lou Dobbs and his team of misogynists have plenty of company–including, as of this weekend, the New York Times. In the wake of last week’s Pew announcement that women are now the primary earners for nearly half of American families with children, yesterday’s paper included an essay from Richard Thaler, who teaches at the University of Chicago’s business school. He writes:
[Recent] developments should encourage aspiring young women to believe that social norms are changing, and that barriers to success are dropping. But a new study reveals that women’s gains on the economic front may be contributing to a decline in the formation and stability of marriages…
The paper’s findings support the anecdotal complaints of many highly educated, high-earning women who say they can’t find suitable husbands. And as women continue to outperform men in school, these problems are likely to grow.
To Thaler’s credit, he recognizes the role that outdated, misogynistic expectations play in this supposed conflict, suggesting that “problems arising from tradition-bound notions of gender identity will keep taking a toll on our economy and our families” until men get comfortable with wives who make more money than they do. However, despite this acknowledgement, Thaler’s big proposal is not a radical challenge to our collective sexism: he seems to hope certain gender roles will dissolve naturally but doesn’t consider the possibility that we could speed the process. Rather, Thaler pushes for the expansion of part-time, at-home work “to hire the millions of talented but underemployed mothers in our economy.”
I absolutely support flexible work schedules that allow both moms and dads to care for kids while making a living. That argument, though, has no place in a discussion about how sexist notions of the “male provider” hurt families. There are many reasons to support flexible work schedules, but preserving male egos by offering women less ambitious paths isn’t one of them. Part-time work shouldn’t be a strategy for wives to assuage their husbands’ insecurities: We need to demolish gendered expectations, not accommodate them. Designing policy to ensure the comfort of misogynists only further entrenches the same fixed roles on which Thaler blames this alleged problem.
Besides, Thaler cites a deeply flawed paper to establish a connection between women’s professional success and unhappy marriages. Even before yesterday’s essay was published, one of my favorite academic bloggers, Philip Cohen, had thoroughly discredited the researchers’ conclusions. As he points out, the data is old, the methodology is dubious, and many have previously exposed similar mistakes in nearly identical studies.
Given the empirical weakness of the Feminist Breadwinner Apocalypse theory, it’s curious that reputable professors and publications are so eager to claim a connection between wives making bank and problems at home. Thaler might be worried about financially independent women’s marriages, but right now I’m more concerned by the popular assumption that they must be failing.