Arianne Cohen: Key to closing the gender gap — husbands who parent

Arianne Cohen, on

Published in Business News

Want to avoid gender pay gaps? The solution starts (and mostly ends) with your bedmate.

Economist Patricia Cortés is an expert on the gender pay gap. If you ask her advice on how to avoid a gender pay gap in your own life, her answer is surprisingly close to home. Actually, it’s in your home: “If I’m honest, my advice is to marry a man that is willing to both support your career and think of household responsibilities as his as much as yours.”

Ouch. “Marry well” was not the policy strategy Cortés expected to discover in her recent extensive review study on what drives the gender pay gap. She’s an associate professor of markets, public policy and law at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, who worked with her longtime collaborator, Jessica Pan, associate professor of economics at the National University of Singapore.

Women’s lower pay has been stubbornly consistent, the gap hovering around 25% the last 30 years, despite huge demographic changes. Women are now more likely to attend college and graduate school than men, meaning that women often roll into the labor market out-earning men. Yet a pay gap soon appears and grows wider and wider as workers age, and is now widest among the most skilled jobs. (It was previously the widest among low-skilled jobs.) “It hasn’t changed much in a long time,” Cortés says.

The likely culprits

She and Pan gathered peers’ data and ran through the likely culprits: Could it be that couples prioritize the career of the higher earner? Nope. Even among women who are breadwinners, the woman usually sacrifices her career. Could it be that women are simply missing out on a few years of career advancement while child-rearing, and that permanently prevents catching up? Nope.

In women, “you see these big drops around the birth of the first kid,” Cortés says. This is unsurprising: Pregnancy and breastfeeding and toddler insanity easily consume dozens of months per child. “But their income never converges back to where the men are. Women’s earnings eventually start going up again, but then there’s this big gap that stays ever after. You see a much bigger career cost for women than men.”

The cost of household labor

At first glance, children seem the culprit. Pan and Cortés found that an astounding two-thirds of the gender earnings gap is attributable to children, and not work-based factors like, say, discriminatory pay. Further delving, though, sussed out that children themselves are not the issue. “We find that so much depends on how, within a household, responsibilities are divided,” Pan says. “It’s not that kids are the cause of the gap, but that the set of responsibilities that come with kids amplifies it.” Translation: Men are dumping household labor on women and trotting off to work.


For today’s oldest millennials, approaching 40, Pan says, “many of us met our husbands at a time when our earnings potential outran theirs. It’s not like in the past, where women were achieving much less than their husbands, and it was very natural for those women to slow down.” Now that career slowdown comes with palpable sacrifice, and is often followed by well-justified resentment.

The math is particularly brutal for women who have children spread out over more than three to four years (which easily extends their years of heavy, unpredictable household labor to a decade, if not two), and in jobs that require long hours, because the benefits of logging those extra hours have risen over time — think tenure or partnership at a law firm. If you want to pursue, say, an executive-suite seat or success on Wall Street, you can expect to log 60- to 80-hour weeks.

“Yes, we could think about polices to change this, but really, to be able to work those long hours when needed, you’re going to have to have that support, and the best support you can have is a husband who is willing to take a big share of the household work,” Cortés says.

Prepare for what’s ahead

Pan suggests educating young women of the realities coming their way. She is finishing a study showing that most young women dreamily intend to have two or three children while working, and severely underestimate the typical impact on a career.

Another strategy is to seek careers where success can come despite flexible or fewer hours or years off. (Hint: Look for roles in which women commonly dominate.) For example, ob-gyns were historically men who delivered babies whenever their patients went into labor; now, medical practices share on-call hours, leading to lesser career damage for moms.

Cortés points out that many industries have successfully realized that many of the best and brightest come from diverse talent pools. But moms are still missing from most pools, to an alarming degree. As Pan puts it, “To this day, when looking at this picture, I’m still, like, really shocked.”

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