The rigidity of gender norms

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

An optimistic take would be that the people most willing to reconsider gender norms are non-conformists who see no need to get married. So the lack of flexible marriages doesn’t indicate a lack of flexible relationships. A very interesting article:

Bargaining models of the household assume that households are able to bargain – that men and women can change the way that they relate to each other; they can change the way that they spend money and allocate tasks. And it seems that they can do so – up to a point. A thought-provoking recent paper by Bertrand, Kamenica and Pan found that people just don’t seem to form and maintain relationships where the wife earns more than the husband – either people don’t get married in the first place, or the wife cuts back her hours of work, or they’re more likely to split up.

…This is not really surprising. A study done a while back by Bittman, England, Sayer, Folbre and Matheson found that husbands who were out-earned by their wives actually did less work around the house than husbands who had similar to, or slightly greater earnings, than their partners. If this result is true more generally, it’s probably not surprising that relationships where the wife earns more than the husband aren’t that common.

These findings suggest – though are far from being conclusive proof – that gender identities impose hard limits on household bargains. Some people are unable or unwilling to accept household arrangements that contradict traditional gender norms. They will not accept being a relationship where the wife earns more than the husband, or the husband is the primary caregiver.

Gender identities are hard to change. But we are not going to go back to a world where women, especially women without young children, stayed home all day cooking and cleaning. It is madness to spend hours washing clothes by hand when a washing machine does a vastly better job of the task; it is practically and ecologically unsustainable for people to go back to growing their own food and cooking it over a wood stove. Doing more than a minimal level of housework is now a choice rather than necessity – and it’s a choice not everyone wants to make. And profit-maximizing employers want productive, good-value-for-money workers – and that as often as not means hiring a woman. So we are stuck in a world where lots of women will out-earn men – and have a higher level of education as well.

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