Is it surprising that women are twice as likely to divorce after being promoted to CEO than men, given that gender norms are still rife? It’s now exactly a year ago since new research was published in the American Economic Journal, which highlighted another gender gap – that of divorce rates for men and women after being promoted. The study, which compared the relationship trajectories of high-powered men and women, found that women are twice as likely to divorce after being elevated to CEO status compared to their male counterparts.
We recently wrote about the motherhood penalty – the theory that women with children are less likely to be promoted, and the seemingly irreconcilable tension between a woman’s career ambitions and her personal life. And now, in the ultimate catch-22, it seems that even when women do become one of the 29% to take on a senior role, this can put their marriage in jeopardy. As co-author of the research Johanna Rickne said, “promotion to a top job in politics increases the divorce rate of women, but not for men, and women who become CEOs divorce faster than men who become CEOs.”
When you take career and home-life, why is it that for women one must ostensibly dismantle the other?
The marriage market vs the labour market
Research by Royal London shows that in 2020 women are the highest earners in 25% of households*. Despite the gender pay gap continuing to mean women essentially “work for free” from 20th November until the end of the year (as they earn just 83p to every male £1), there has been a steady rise in the number of women who are the breadwinner for their home. 27% of women now earn as much as or more than their male partners – up from 22% in 2004 – meanwhile the number of men who take home more than their spouse has dropped.
Although men still wear the breadwinner badge for the majority of homes, this increase in high-powered women is a cultural shift – one which has an impact on her relationship and the logistics of her home life. Personal Finance Specialist at Royal London, Becky O’Connor, said, “more women becoming breadwinners could be the key to some pretty big changes and the undoing of some harmful assumptions…it may make economic sense for male partners to take on more of the responsibilities that typically take women out of the workplace.”
However, as Rickne points out, the marriage market has not kept up with the labour market when it comes to gender equality and it is “still seen as quite unusual for men to be the main supportive spouse in someone else’s career.” One theory therefore is that the husbands of high-powered women find their wife’s promotion – and the knock-on strain on their domesticity – harder to deal with than women do in the reverse situation.
The stress factor
Research suggests that external stressors, including work, negatively affect a relationship and that one or both partners being stressed in general can contribute to divorce*. Meanwhile, the University of Bath’s 2019 study ‘Spousal Relative Income and Male Psychological Distress’ found that men became more stressed as their wives surpassed them in the earning stakes or contributed 40% or more of the household income*. Thus, there is a positive correlation between women in higher-powered roles and stressed-out husbands.
One theory is that this stress is rooted in unconscious gender norms and the long-standing beliefs that men “should” be the breadwinner. For such a long time the responsibility was on the man’s shoulders to “bring home the bacon” – and something that was “theirs” has since become shared, diminishing for them a feeling of purpose and ownership. As financial expert and author of “When She Makes More” Farnoosh Torabi explained, “if you are not fulfilling that expectation, it has the potential to damage your self-esteem and self-worth.”
Aside from this, a Harvard study suggests that men struggle more to cope with work life balance than women. The research found that men were unable to contribute so much – emotionally and practically – to the home after a stressful day, compared with women who seemed able to still offer emotional support and contribute to family time.
Taking this into account, one reason for higher divorce rates amongst promoted women is the mental strain this places on her husband and the subsequent stress leading to relationship pressure and eventually separation.
The power of perception
Charlotte Ljung, a divorced mother-of-two and CEO for a luxury bed and furniture group in Sweden, said the practical demands on a role such as hers – long days, extensive travel, and general pressure – can cause difficulties in relationships without kids too, and that divorce is a common concern for women in her network. “The joke is ‘the better you do at work, the more likely you are going to get a divorce.”
Ljung attributes this link to the “the power of perception” and the idea that despite many men wanting to step up to the plate of equality at work and home, for some they struggle to shake the deep-seated emphasis on who earns the most and supports the family livelihood. She says, “men today often find it intriguing in the beginning and want to be seen to support you and root for you – and I think that is a very positive thing – but I think a few steps down the line, when reality kicks in, it can be more difficult for them to deal with.”
So how we can create a world in which women can work and be a wife in harmony?
- Fight the good fight
As with any chronic societal condition, we mustn’t underestimate the power of awareness-raising and education in de-stigmatising and changing the playing field.
Ljung believes that highlighting the common challenges couples face when the woman is promoted, and preparing them with what to expect, could go a long way to helping the relationship survive. “One has to be careful about putting on a feminist hat and pointing fingers, because nothing has really prepared men for this change, practically…we need to provide better tools and raise awareness of the subject by talking about it.”
- Practical strategies
Torabi says that there are practical strategies which can help couples “grappling with this imbalance”. Including talking through and helping each person feel financially valuable within the relationship – and establishing areas the husband can contribute to, regardless f their job or how much they earn. This could be anything from managing the household finances to taking on more domestic chores – it’s simply about each person within the marriage feeling empowered and valuable.
- Support one another
Research by the American Psychological Association shows that masculinity norms discourage men from being vulnerable, preventing them from seeking support with their mental health – or indeed, opening up to their partner when they’re struggling. Referring back to the impact of stress on divorce rates, when there is a shift in the domestic routine (such as when the women is promoted to a more demanding role), being vigilant about the impact on each person in the couple, and creating a space for both parties to share their challenges, can help them overcome this “pain point” together, united and in each other’s corners.
Hannah Ruth is a social media expert and a contributing writer for Yellow Eve. You can connect with her here.