70% of top male earners in the US have a spouse who stays home

Wealthy, but not equal.
Wealthy, but not equal.
Image: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi
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How do many men who hold seriously demanding jobs—the kind that require working long hours, staying available to the team or to customers on weekends, and constant travel—not only survive, but have a life?

According to a paper that’s under review at a sociology journal, the odds are these men have a partner at home who has sacrificed their own career to accommodate the power-earner’s schedule. To be exact, it finds that 7 in 10 men who have enough income to put their households in the top 1% of earners have stay-at-home spouses.

“What we’re seeing at the very top are very traditional gender roles in which men are the primary breadwinners and women’s careers are often taking a back seat,” says Jill Yavorsky, assistant professor of sociology and organizational science at University of North Carolina Charlotte and lead author of the study. The women in these couples, who, like their spouses, tend to be highly educated, are “doing a lot of the unpaid labor, or the managing of unpaid labor at home, to support men’s careers.”

This power dynamic between the couple matters, she explains, not only as one more measure of the gender pay gap, and the effects of long working hours and a demanding work culture on women’s roles in the workforce, but because of the extremely disproportionate social, political, and cultural clout of the 1%.

Indirect evidence suggests that the way wealthy couples view policies, and spend on political or philanthropic donations, may vary along gender lines, but “if you’re a stay-at-home spouse, or a non-breadwinning spouse, you likely do not have the same kind of power and influence within a household,” Yavorsky says.

Marriage gives top-earning men an advantage

Over the past several years, Yavorsky and her co-authors—professors Lisa Keister of Duke University and Yue Qian of University of British Columbia and research scientist Michael Nau of Ohio State University—have analyzed data from the 1995 to 2016 Surveys of Consumer Finances, looking for gender patterns.

Because different forms of wealth (such as inherited wealth) can combine to bestow a household with 1% status, they narrowed their research to those that would qualify for this club based on income alone. As they report in a recent study published by the American Sociological Association, under that condition, and based on survey data from the Federal Reserve Board, they determined that a household’s income would need reach at least $845,000 in 2016 dollars to earn 1% status. (In 2016, the top 1% of households in this category received 23.8% of all US income. Their average household income was $2.3 million, compared to an average $76,000 in the remaining 99% of the population.)

Not surprisingly, the big earners in these households were mainly white men in different-sex marriages. Women were the major breadwinners in only 5% of the households. In fact, in the majority of cases, a woman’s income was irrelevant to her household’s 1% class standing. Men earned sufficient amounts to become one-percenters whether or not their spouses had a paycheck.

But marriage itself was treating these men well: Married men, the researchers found, were far more likely than single men with equal amounts of education to make the 1% cut. The same wasn’t true for the small group of women who earned personal 1% status; they were just as likely to be married or single. And among those who were married, only 22% had a stay-at-home spouse. (The data did not reveal how long stay-at-home spouses of either gender tend to remain out of the workforce, though Yavorsky says her future research will tackle this question.)

Why marriage is such a boon for men alone isn’t clear, though the researchers propose an explanation that will be familiar to women of all income levels: that the difference comes down to unpaid labor and gendered expectations for childcare, eldercare, and household maintenance. “Married men, unlike married women, are more likely to have partners who perform the majority of unpaid labor in their household and are willing to compromise their own careers to favor their spouse’s ambitions,” the paper suggests.

Notably, the authors point out, even though parents of this class can afford to hire help for housework and childcare, women still end up managing this realm of family life. 

Women in the 1% likely land in the position of lower earner, and the one most likely to stay at home, because of the same obstacles that have kept the gender pay gap alive for everyone else.

Though education and self-employment or entrepreneurship were found to be strongly related to a person’s ability to earn enormous amounts of money, as has been true in other studies, men appear to gain from both more. That makes sense, considering what research has taught us about women’s experiences launching startups. Not only do customers expect to pay less for products from woman-owned companies, for instance, but women who launch their own businesses have a harder time attracting venture capital funding or bank loans.

Meanwhile, women in high-earning careers within, say, banking or the law, are hindered by glass-ceiling effects, too. The likelihood that a man will be able to reach the top echelons of these professions is far greater, making it more rational, in a way, for a woman to support her husband’s career for the sake of the family.

Diversifying the 1% might be better for everyone

The study’s researchers are careful to put their work in context: They do not believe women in 1% households are oppressed. These women still have enormous political power and resources compared to most Americans. “I would advocate that we need to redistribute some of the economic resources that are going to the very top,” says Yavorsky.

However, there will always be an elite class, she adds, and the US might be better off if this particular class looked more like the rest of the country. Part of that evolution would involve women busting into the 1% on their own steam, rather than as women who married high-earners.

Although more investigation is required, Yavorsky emphasizes, there’s reason to believe, based on existing research, that if women were the primary breadwinners in the 1%, they “might wield that power a little bit differently,” she suggests. “Surveys have shown that women tend to support liberal causes,” she said, “and gender-related charities.”

Correction: The article has been updated to reflect that the statistic in the headline will appear in a forthcoming paper. It did not appear in the American Sociological Review.