Trailing spouses, beware! A new study shows that when married couples move, the move nearly always benefits the man much more than the woman.
In their study of family migration, sociology professors Mary Noonan of the University of Iowa and Kimberlee Shauman of the University of California-Davis, found that a year after a move, nearly all of the men in the study remained employed. The women, on the other hand, were 22 percent less likely to be employed compared to women who did not move. The men also came out better financially, boosting salaries by an average of $3,000 that year, compared to an average increase of only $700 for men who stayed put; whereas women who moved reported average salary increases of $750 less than women who stayed put.
Although sociologists have been aware of this disparity for a while, it’s been explained as function of women’s jobs being less well paying or less prestigious as compared to men’s. A woman can be a secretary or a teacher anywhere, so the argument goes, but a male business exec needs to be willing and able to move. Noonan and Shauman weren’t convinced. They thought they would find the pattern to remain true even among women in high stature jobs, so their study took into account the earning potentials and prestige of both wives’ and husbands’ jobs.
“We found that it’s the same story essentially even when you look at women with careers that look the same as men’s in terms of earning potential and stature,” says Noonan. These results suggest that couples tend to move much more often for the man’s career than for a woman’s. Women, no matter their level of education or earning potential, end up being the trailing spouse much more than men.
Although attitudinal studies of young people consistently find they believe that couples should share housework fifty-fifty and both partners’ jobs are of equal importance, these beliefs don’t play out. “Couples don’t seem to place much weight on how family migration might affect the wife’s career,” says Noonan, “but instead they seem to base their decision solely on whether or not it will bring added earning and prestige to the husband.”
To refuse to move for your husband’s career, she says, is still viewed as selfish for many women. But men who move to benefit their wives at their own loss remain oddities. Noonan says that women who are leery of a potential move should consider all of the pluses and minuses, even some that are hard to measure, such as feelings of isolation that can lead to depression, loss of a childcare network (if the couple has children), and loss of earning power, which can subtly disrupt the equilibrium of a marriage.
“Even today, when women are earning more money and are more likely to put an emphasis on their career, when it comes to marriage, gender roles are very entrenched,” Noonan says.