In 2018, most women do not earn more than their male partners. The reasons for that are manifold: There’s the pay gap, which hurts women more in industries that pay more handsomely. Of the 12% of workers in the U.S. who earn more than $100,000, only 27% are women, according to a 2018 study by Georgetown University. Generally, women are more likely to work in sectors that don’t pay as well (or looked at another way, fields end up paying less when mostly women work in them). And for women of color, pay is even lower across the board.
That said, the numbers have crept up, and according to a recent paper from the Census Bureau, women reportedly now earn more than their male partners in 23% of couples. But because for all of women’s history in the workforce, they have earned a fraction of their male partners, and when women do manage to snag a higher salary, it can still be awkward or uncomfortable—sometimes for both parties.
The paper found that in marriages where women earned more, both people lied about their salaries when reporting them for the census. Women said they earned less than they actually did, and men said they earned more. (“Manning up and womaning down,” as the paper dubbed it.) When women outearned their partners, they were more likely to be well-educated and were outliers in that they made more than double the salary of women who earned less than their husbands; age and location did not seem to influence the occurrence of couples in which the woman earned more.
I talked to four couples—all opposite-sex marriages in which the woman earns more—about how they deal with this dynamic, as well as how it permeates their home life and affects perception by family and friends.
“It was a calculated risk that we took”
Tanya Hersh is in her late thirties and leads the marketing team at Los Angeles-based e-commerce startup Hollar. Last year, her husband Matt Hersh left a high-paying sales job to join a new seed firm, Fika Ventures; as a result, their pay differential is now about $100,000.
“I think that made him a little uncomfortable at first—not because of the comparison, but because it was significantly less than he had ever gotten paid in his career,” Tanya says, though she adds that their compensation structure differs. “That was a very difficult decision for him because it’s a huge risk.” The couple met in business school, which Tanya says helped “level set,” and their compensation was fairly similar until she started working at The Honest Company in 2012; from that point onwards, Matt earned more than Tanya until he took the job at Fika.
“It was a calculated risk that we took, and we ran our finances and determined there could be a finite amount of time that we could do this,” Matt says, adding that his family and friends didn’t quite understand the decision. “We both fully support each other, but she’s the one who’s really putting her neck out on the line.” He adds that he would make a change if they needed to collectively bring in more money.
“I joke with my kids,” Tanya says. “‘Mama has to go to work and bring home the bacon!'” Matt echoes that, adding that she often makes jokes about, say, being the breadwinner. “It happens quite frequently, but most of it’s in jest,” Matt says. “But I think there’s an ounce of truth behind it as well.”
The couple doesn’t have a joint account, opting instead to keep their money in separate accounts. “I definitely think of it a little bit as my money versus his money,” she says. “If anything makes my husband uncomfortable, it’s that. He thinks of it definitely more as ‘ours,’ and he has since we got married.” She cites an instance when she reimbursed Matt for paying off her student loans (which happened after they got married). “That is something that was probably instilled in me through my mom,” she adds. “I just didn’t want to feel like I was mooching off him. I felt that I should pay him back, which he didn’t really understand and thought was silly.”
For Tanya, working and bringing in money has always been very important, having been raised by a mother who immigrated from Taiwan and worked her whole life. “My mom really instilled an ethic of ‘make sure you can take care of yourself,'” she says. “I know if I decide at any point to be a stay-at-home mom, she would look down on that decision . . . she raised three children while working, so she doesn’t see why I would ever think of giving up my career to stay at home. Financial independence was very important to her.”
“I would have a much tougher time if I had to ask for money”
“I didn’t really have a lot of examples of working parents,” says Marianna Martinelli, 36, who is The Wing’s director of community. She grew up in San Antonio, where she said she encountered more “traditional” family structures. Her own mom, who she describes as a “hustler and worker,” didn’t go back to work until Marianna was about 13.
Now that they have a 1-year-old daughter, Marianna’s husband, Vincent, who is in his early forties, spends three days a week working from home to take care of their child. “We live in New York City, and paying for childcare is incredibly expensive,” Marianna says. “I’m lucky I have a partner who thinks about dividing the ‘traditional’ housework and responsibilities . . . he was super excited and open to being the primary caregiving parent.”
“I think at first it was kind of double-edged,” Vincent says. “For me it was like, ‘Wow, am I really not going to be the ‘breadwinner?’ Even though we’re equals, if I made $20,000 or $30,000 more, somehow in my mind, that put me ahead, and I was the primary earner.” He admits that, despite growing up in a family in which his mother worked more, he still felt pressure to earn more. “[As an] Italian American, I was definitely raised to think it was my responsibility as a man to take care of the family,” Vincent says. “It was actually a role I rejected a lot, too. I kind of did it begrudgingly.”
It wasn’t always the case that Marianna earned more. “I was making significantly less than I’m making now,” she says of her previous jobs. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be an important player at a company that is growing quickly. There’s a lot of opportunity, so I’m grateful that I have a husband who is a cheerleader . . . he isn’t afraid of my ambition.”
Still, their arrangement has required Vincent to adjust not only where he works, but how. Working from home is difficult when he also has to take care of the baby, he says (though it has also made him more productive, since he maximizes the hours that he is able to work uninterrupted). “There are some darker days,” he says, “where I feel probably like women have felt for the past, you know, 5,000 years.” The week we spoke, their nanny was suddenly unavailable, and they had to figure out how to take care of their daughter. Vincent says he was “a little taken aback at how it was so automatic that I would stay home with her.”
Vincent believes the pay differential—and lifestyle—would hit him differently if he didn’t work at all and was a stay-at-home dad. “I would have a much tougher time if I had to ask Marianna for money,” he says. “I think I would have to work one way or another, just because I can’t sit still creatively. But I can’t imagine if it was just one step further and I had to have an allowance or something. I don’t know what that would feel like.”
“That’s our reality and I realize that, but I’ve never had some sort of crisis of masculinity”
For Justine Post, 31, and Andrew Hammond, 30, their financial arrangement simply made the most sense. After completing a degree in social work and divinity, Post took a job at a nonprofit, where she now makes close to $60,000 a year. Hammond works as a nanny for about 25 hours a week and spends the rest of his time working at a community garden; he gets paid between $10 and $15 an hour.
When they had a daughter in April, Hammond realized he could continue working as a nanny and just bring her along. Since Post already made more money, there wasn’t really a discussion of whether she might leave her job; she took 12 weeks of maternity leave and then went back to work full-time. “I love my job,” Post says. “It gives me a lot of purpose, and I really enjoy it. We also just need the money, and I don’t mind being the one that goes and does that.” Hammond adds: “Obviously that’s our reality and I realize that, but I’ve never had some sort of crisis of masculinity.”
Even before they had a daughter, Post says, they had talked about contributing, financially or otherwise, in whichever way made sense for their family and marriage at the time. “We both just wanted to contribute in some way, whether that was working all day or [taking] care of the house and the property,” she says. Hammond’s influences growing up help, too: His stepmom earned more, and his dad took care of household work like laundry and cooking. Since his parents were divorced, his mom also expected him to pitch in around the house. “I understood that masculinity also included things like cooking and doing chores,” he says.
Occasionally, the two of them are on the receiving end of comments about their parenting and work decisions (“I can’t imagine what I would do if I had to work and leave my daughter every day”); in other instances, people are visibly surprised that Hammond takes care of their daughter on a daily basis. Perhaps most telling is that some folks applaud Hammond for taking his daughter to public places without his wife—and others are surprised by Hammond’s line of work. “Most of the awkward comments I get are not really related to me staying home so much as me having two degrees, but then working at the community garden and nannying,” Hammond says. “I’m definitely overqualified for what I’m doing right now.”
“I avoid situations now where I have to meet new people who are going to judge me”
A few years ago, James Milner, 43, quit a lucrative job at a consulting firm to stay home with his three children and recover from an illness. His wife Minnie Ingersoll, 42, is the COO of Code for America.
“I’m really proud and excited about how she continually finds jobs that excite her,” Milner says of Ingersoll, who previously worked at Google for more than 10 years and then cofounded her own company. “I aspire to find that joy for myself. And I feel supported by her to go and find that. But it’s not a competitive feeling.”
Milner, who was raised by two working parents, says he has a “strong work ethic” because of his background. Which is to say: He’s bothered not so much by his wife’s earnings, but by the fact that he doesn’t have something he feels passionate about. “My primary discomfort is not having something to do that I love,” he says.
Living in Silicon Valley means Milner interacts with many working parents and is more frequently asked about his employment status. “I avoid situations now where I have to meet new people who are going to judge me on my employment—which, frankly, is most people,” he says. “I have a group of close friends who don’t have to ask those questions anymore because they know.” Still, it’s hard for him to shake off those interactions. “The real downside isn’t money; it’s how people see me,” Milner says. “It’s just a reflection of how I’m sort of uncomfortable with not having a job, and how my parents’ personas were defined by the jobs they did. And mine also was until five years ago.”
“I do get a lot of meaning from my work, but I also feel like I give myself a pass to some degree because I’m bringing in a salary,” Ingersoll says of her job. “It gives me a feeling like I am contributing in my way because I am bringing in money.” She realizes that’s something Milner struggles with, despite the fact that he does more of the childcare and family planning. “I think he feels like he doesn’t contribute as much to the family,” she says. “He doesn’t always quite say that. But what you make or what you do is a measuring stick that our society uses that you can’t totally get away from.”
With her current job, Ingersoll is able to leave the office at 5 p.m., which allows her to spend time with her children. She credits Milner with giving her the ability to balance work and childcare—taking care of her kids when they wake up in the middle of the night, for example, so she can sleep properly. She claims Milner has the harder role as a stay-at-home parent. “On Monday, sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh, I get to go to work and relax!'” she says. “I really feel like I have the easier job.”