Does a Woman’s High-Status Career Hurt Her Marriage? Not If Her Husband Does the Laundry

While women who win the Academy Award for Best Actress are celebrated for reaching a pinnacle of career achievement, several of them also share another distinction – divorce. Known as the “Oscar Curse,” Best Actress award recipients are more likely to file for divorce than are their nominated counterparts or Best Actor winners. Sandra Bullock, Julie Andrews, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Halle Berry, Emma Thompson, and Kate Winslet all share this experience. Patterns like this led us to ask whether womens’ high status careers affect marital stability, and if so, why. Our research on the matter was recently published in the journal Organization Science.

While men continue to occupy the upper echelons of most organizations, women have made considerable progress in acquiring high status roles in organizations. According to U.S. Department of Labor Data, women now hold at least 50% of management and professional positions, outnumbering males in roles such as financial managers, accountants, and medical and health services managers. These workplace changes have affected household roles as well: whereas U.S. women were the primary breadwinners in 18% of marriages in 1987, that number rose to 29% in dual-income marriages by 2014.

Despite these organizational and economic changes, societal norms still suggest that in heterosexual marriages, husbands “should” hold higher job status relative to their wives. When this norm is violated, and wives hold the higher status job, negative consequences can follow: Women are disparagingly referred to as having “married down,” are more likely to be targets of husbands’ aggression, and the risk for divorce increases. With these findings in mind, we wanted to examine whether and how womens’ high status jobs might impact the quality of their marriages and whether wives’ perceptions of, and feelings about, their husbands’ job status led to marital instability.

To do this, we proposed that when wives see themselves holding a higher job role than their husbands, their feelings about their own statuses might change. Typically, when individuals and organizations affiliate with others of higher status than themselves, they elevate their own status (something researchers call “status leakage.”) And on the flip side, when people affiliate with others in lower status positions than themselves, they may experience status anxiety or the fear of losing status, which can be both economically and personally threatening.

Bringing this closer to home, when wives believe that the statuses they worked so hard to achieve at work are at risk because of their husbands’ lower job status, they could experience a different kind of status spillover, which would include feeling embarrassed by or resentful of their spouses’ lower job status, and fearing that their status could be compromised by that of their husbands.

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