Does Getting Married Help Women Get Ahead?

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Does Getting Married Help Women Get Ahead?

By J. Maureen Henderson

“Choose your husband carefully.”

When Marie Claire asked Sallie Krawcheck, former head of Global Wealth and Investment Management at Bank of America, about work-life balance, that’s the key piece of advice she says she doles out to young female professionals. It’s a view echoed by A-list career advice blogger Penelope Trunk who recently penned a post entitled Your Biggest Career Decision Is Who You Marry.

Both Krawcheck and Trunk approach the issue from the perspective that if you plan to pursue your career with gusto, you need to pick a spouse whose attitude and ambition support that goal and whose own goals you can also support. But how realistic and reflective of reality are such words of wisdom for today’s young workers? Is a supportive spouse really a key ingredient to career success for the next generation of female leaders? Here’s what the numbers say:
Does getting married help women get ahead? Firstly, not only are both men and women getting married later (if at all), there are more single women in their early 30s now than at any point in the last 60 years. Young women are spending more time single, establishing themselves more fully in their careers before marriage and even putting off tying the knot until the economy recovers. For Millennials, it may be less about choosing the right spouse and more about whether they choose to get married at all. The individual calculation then shifts from “Am I marrying the best person?” to “What effect does not marrying have on my career and personal life and how do I enhance or mitigate that effect?” With two-thirds of Gen Y women vehemently claiming they don’t support a return to traditional gender roles in society, it’s a question more young women will be grappling with.

In addition to staying single, young women are having fewer babies. Krawcheck and Trunk are speaking from the perspective of mothers and both allude to the benefit of having a supportive co-parent to share in the childcare burden for women with demanding careers. But the statistics around family structure for young women don’t mirror this love-marriage-baby carriage image. At the same time that the birth rate is declining, the rate of single motherhood is on an upswing. Half of births to mothers under 30 are to single women, which makes sense in light of the abovementioned changes to marriage rates. Purposefully choosing to have a child alone or choosing not to become a mother greatly diminishes the need to marry well if the prime career benefit of doing so is to have someone to share diaper duty with and cut down on the demands of the double day.

To marry or not to marry? Both Trunk and Krawcheck imply that spousal choice is of particular importance to women. And while it’s true that not every suitor is going to be interested in a mate who has climbing straight to the top of the corporate ladder as her priority, it’s not simply as easy as picking your perfectly supportive significant other out of a catalog, being sure to skip the section marked “Staunch Traditionalists.” As a joint survey conducted by YourTango and ForbesWoman illustrated, high-achieving women are looking for high-achieving men, with 75% saying that they wouldn’t yoke themselves to an unemployed guy and 36% of women under 35 claiming that having a partner with a prestigious career was important to them. But what about these high-achieving men? Well, they might be somewhat reluctant to take the plunge, at least if the co-author of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying is right. In an interview with Salon, Mark Regnerus discusses how young college-age men hold the balance of power in (potential) relationships as they’re currently the minority on American campuses and able to have their pick of a large pool of well-educated women who now must compete for male attention. Encouraging women to choose carefully when it comes to husbands is all well and good (if more than a little heteronormative), but leaves out the fact that these women need someone to choose them back.

But what about the bottom line? Aside from support, division of household labor and co-parenting, does it literally pay to be married? According to research from the University of Michigan, the answer is yes, there is a marriage premium at play. To be precise, married women earn 4% more than their unmarried counterparts. So, from a purely financial perspective, those who say I do really do come out ahead. And, in the end, that could be just the pro-matrimony argument that is most likely to resonate with money-conscious Millennials.

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