Nearly half a century ago, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique helped kick off the modern feminist movement. Friedan described the widespread melancholy of women who felt trapped by the notion that they could find fulfillment only as wives and mothers. Women have come a long way since then—more women are working and fewer getting married, just as Friedan might have hoped. Yet many working women seem to suffer from a despondency similar to the one that Friedan attributed to a life as a homemaker. And despite an initial closing of the gender wage gap, differences persist between what men and women with similar skills and education earn.
A preliminary study by University of Chicago and Singapore economists argues that there may be a single explanation that lies behind all of these trends, one related to the very slow-moving social identities of men and women and how these identities collide within a marriage or romantic partnership. Though in 2012 women are better educated and higher-skilled than men, in identity terms we’re still stuck in a 1950s world in which “men work in the labor force and women work in the home.” These ’50s era gender identities prevent many men from partnering with women who out-earn them and creates friction for the men who do. The study’s findings suggest that a focus on gender discrimination in the workplace won’t be nearly enough to create gender equality in America.
Economists Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan have imported social identity theory from social psychology to study the evolution of gender relations over the past few decades. Social identity theory holds that individuals define themselves as members of groups, each of which has a set of behaviors that are expected of their members. Deviating from these expectations is costly, so if, as Friedan argued, the identity of women is defined by housework, taking a job outside the home would be a source of angst and torment. And if a man’s identity is defined as breadwinner, seeing his wife bring home a bigger paycheck is going to create problems for him, and in turn for the marriage.
The authors document some striking patterns in who marries whom, how husband and wife divide their household responsibilities, and which marriages survive, all of which suggest that the gender identities that Friedan documented 50 years ago continue to cast a very long shadow.
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