By Published: Sept. 1, 2014

illustration women with bag of house

CU-Boulder research finds that working women wield more influence at home.

This spring, Karin Rutstein (IntlBus’87) came home with a $180 wood veneer end table, a purchase she did not consider running by her husband before she bought it.

“My husband jokes that he doesn’t get to make any decisions,” she says with a chuckle. “I even had him assemble it.”

It’s a scenario that wouldn’t necessarily surprise Francisca Antman, assistant professor of economics at CU-Boulder. This summer Antman released findings from a study that found that when married women work, they wield more decision-making power over household expenses — like buying a car, large appliances or furniture.

Specifically, Antman found that if a married woman had worked in the past 12 months, the likelihood of her involvement in decisions over major household purchases rose by about 5 percent. What’s more, the likelihood that her husband is the sole decision-maker for big buys fell by about 5 percent.

“I think it’s so important because employment is the way that most women, by and large, are going to be able to improve their own situation,” Antman says.

While this study — of households headed by men with female spouses — offers important insights into who makes decisions within husband-and-wife households, Antman says, “ideally we could learn more about how the decision-making process works within marriages and how it changes over time and in different contexts.”

The topic appealed to Antman because some research shows that outcomes for children and women improve when women earn money, but until recently most studies hadn’t shown evidence of the mechanism behind these results, she explains.

“My paper shows that when women work, their bargaining power improves,” she says. “That’s consistent with economic theory and suggests a mechanism behind the results of previous studies.”

Antman’s findings do not say that women who don’t work have no say in household decisions, “only that the data suggest that when women work, they are more likely to be involved in major decisions at home,” she says.

Rutstein, the mother of an 11-year-old girl, works part-time for a marketing and public relations firm in Denver. She worked full-time until 2010.

“Working professionally definitely gives you confidence that translates into home life,” Rutstein says. “I think if someone feels as if they contribute to the household bottom line they also likely feel more entitled to make financial decisions rather than defer those decisions to the lone income producer.”

While Antman says she’s not aware of research that shows a positive correlation between women’s economic self-sufficiency and their self-confidence, she cites some reasons why the female spouse has more decision-making power when she is employed outside the home.

“It could be that her husband grants her greater authority or that she commands it for a variety of reasons,” Antman says.

Whenever it’s easier for women to work, just as men do, they often have greater influence within their households, she adds.

“It’s not just a question of increasing their income, but actually increasing their influence over their own lives,” Antman says.

Illustration by Anna + Elena Balbusso