The hidden taxes on women
The working world is unfair to many women, yet even when they succeed, they must confront another series of challenges. Their hard-won successes are taxed in ways that men's are not.The taxes I'm talking about aren't paid in dollars and cents or imposed by the government. They take the form of annoyance and misery and are levied by individuals, very often by loved ones. I call these impositions taxes because they take away some of what an individual earns, diminishing the joys of success.
A recent Swedish study of gender differences in the implications of victory for political candidates calls attention to this unfairness. While winning is the ultimate professional milestone for candidates, a source of elation and pride, for women it is often spoiled, according to the study, by Olle Folke, a political scientist at Uppsala University, and Johanna Rickne, an economist at Stockholm University.
Winning an election increases subsequent divorce rates for female candidates but not for men (This paper, like most of the social science literature, focuses on female-male partners.) These divorces are not the exclusive result of hard-fought campaigns. The study examined elections with very narrow margins of victories, in which winning was largely a matter of luck. These "lucky" winners also experienced higher divorce rates.
Corporate success has similar consequences: Women who become chief executives divorce at higher rates than others.Another study found that the same is true in Hollywood: Winning the best actress Oscar portends a divorce, while winning the best actor award does not.
Of course, the divorce itself may be a preferred outcome, one that is better than enduring a poisonous relationship. Even then, I'd argue that the tax was exacted in the emotional toll and the time lost in a failed marriage.Men react particularly negatively to their spouses' relative success.
Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica, economists at the University of Chicago, and Jessica Pan, an economist at the National University of Singapore, examined the wages of spouses. Because women generally earn less in the work force, they generally earn less than their husbands, too.
What is more surprising in the data is that it is far more common for the husband to earn just a tiny bit more than the wife than the other way around. The fact that women on average earn less does not account for such a sharp asymmetry.
In fact, the researchers find several forces that ensure men earn at least a little bit more than their wives.We can measure the earning potential of both husband and wife - based, for example, on their occupation and education. In the typical household, higher earnings potential means a higher chance of working. When you can earn more, you generally work more.
Perversely, though, this correlation no longer holds when the wife's earning potential is larger than her husband's. For example, when wives are in higher-paying professions, they are less likely to work.We no longer live in a society where men are the sole breadwinners. But we do apparently live in one where the man should win more bread.
When that principle is violated - and the wife earns more than the husband - she is taxed in a variety of ways. She spends more time on household chores, and, to add insult to injury, she is more likely to end up divorced.The authors point out: "Women are bringing personal glass ceilings from home to the workplace." To place the agency for the problem where it belongs, I would also say: "Spouses at home help install the glass ceiling at work."
Even powerful, successful women must navigate such challenges at home. Indra Nooyi, chief executive of Pepsi, said in a recent podcast, "From my perspective, my mom says, 'Leave the crown in the garage.'" Ms. Nooyi, who said she had been married for decades, added, "I don't think I could have balanced all of this had I brought my crown into the house every day." She continued: "And would I have liked to have brought it in? No, not at the expense of my marriage and my children."
The taxes imposed in marriage are foreshadowed in the dating world. One study found that men are less likely to want a date with a woman who is more intelligent or ambitious than they are. In contrast, women penalize neither intelligence nor ambition in a man.
Women know, or at least intuit, that such taxes exist. That emerges from a recent paper by Leonardo Bursztyn, an economist at the University of Chicago; Thomas Fujiwara, an economist at Princeton; and Amanda Pallais, an economist at Harvard. They studied M.B.A. students who were asked by a career counselor about future job preferences. These answers would be used to help place them in jobs. For some students, the answers were private, while others were discussed in a class with their peers.
For men and women who were already in relationships, the distinction did not matter: They reported the same job preferences whether or not they were private.Not so for single women: When they thought their peers (and presumably potential mates) would see the answers, they said they wanted a job with fewer hours per week and a smaller salary.
They also said they wanted less of a leadership role and had smaller professional ambitions than women who were able to answer privately. These women most likely feared that ambition, willingness to work hard and the desire to earn a lot would make them less appealing as mates, if these preferences were openly expressed.
What should we make of all of these findings? My initial reaction was dismay at the widespread existence of such sexism among other men. With time, though, I realized my mistake: I was focusing on other men when I am surely just as complicit. If the average man is sexist in these ways, the odds are that I am, too.
In day-to-day life, I may not realize that I'm contributing to these problems, but neither, probably, do other men. So fixing these problems is my responsibility - and the responsibility of other men, too. We can help through introspection, by asking questions of those closest to us and by listening to the painful answers.
Old habits die hard, but these are surely worth killing.Tax policy can be hard to change in Washington. But in this case, we men individually levy these taxes - and each of us can eliminate them.
The writer is a professor of economics at Harvard