By Published: May 14, 2020

When husbands work in fields that require longer work hours, their spouses’ careers falter, but the converse does not seem to happen, CU Boulder economist finds

Highly educated, married women with children face lower total earnings, lower hourly wages, fewer employment options, and hours of work when their husbands work in jobs that demand long hours, according to new findings from the University of Colorado Boulder. 

This new research, out earlier this year in the IRL Review, is based on U.S. Census data and corresponds with a recent Gallup poll that also found that women take on a disproportionate share of the home and child responsibilities 

“If you look at the expected earnings of women based on the college majors they choose, the gap between men and women isn’t that big,” Terra McKinnish, an economics professor and the author of the new study, said. “You would consider them in the pipeline for breaking the glass ceiling in very successful careers. It’s when you look later at what occupation the women have that you see they’ve shifted towards lower-paying, lower-demanding jobs.”

McKinnish conducts research in labor economics, economic demography and public economics and was interested in the factors that determine whether a highly educated woman’s career path continues to move on an upward trajectory or is reduced to a less-demanding, lower-paying occupation, when the couple have children at home. 

“We all know that a certain portion of highly educated married women will tend to work less or change to work that’s more flexible after they have kids,” McKinnish said. “I wanted to know what factors determine which of them do this and how much they opt out of the job market. That conflict may be particularly severe if the husband’s job is inflexible and demanding.”

Mom with children

Using American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau from 2009 to 2015, McKinnish estimated the effect of a husband’s long work hours on the job prospects of a skilled married woman. She found that when husbands work in fields that require longer work hours, their spouses’ careers falter. Husbands’ careers, however, are not affected if their wives work in a field that demands long hours.

If the husband typically works more than 50 hours a week, that creates an imbalance in which the woman is having to shoulder even more of the household and child-rearing responsibilities. That woman is more likely to work less or to work in different types of jobs.

The family/work/life balance conflicts make it more likely that the woman will drop off her initial career path."

“The family/work/life balance conflicts make it more likely that the woman will drop off her initial career path,” McKinnish said. “That is an important story for why some of our most highly trained women are not advancing as far in their careers as you would predict. Why do these women not end up where we think they should be?” 

McKinnish herself started college as an economics major as a precursor to pursuing an MBA.  Of particular interest to her is how people make key decisions in their lives, whether to go to college, what to study, where to live, whom to marry, and so forth.

This led her to pursue a PhD at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Her research has covered diverse topics such as migration, the effects of the 1970s coal boom on workers in Appalachia, neighborhood gentrification, and whether having many opposite-sex co-workers encourages divorce.

This new research, according to McKinnish, suggests that highly educated women might want to take into account the effects that marriage and family could have on their career goals.

“What I’m trying to do is add to the conversation of this area of research,” McKinnish said. “It’s about trying to understand the phenomena better.”