When a Promotion Leads to Divorce

People cling to the traditional notion that career success is a male drama in which women must do their best in a supporting role.

Woman's silhouette against cityscape

For the ninth time in the past 10 years, no women have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. The critically acclaimed adaptation of Little Women earned a nod for Best Picture. But the Oscars overlooked its director, Greta Gerwig, whose previous film, Lady Bird, earned the only Best Director entry for a woman out of the past 50 nominations in this category.

The Academy’s slight is part of a larger phenomenon. In the past half century, women in the U.S. have caught up with men in college degrees and payroll jobs. But this “grand gender convergence,” as the economist Claudia Goldin has called it, has failed to produce equality in media, corporate, or political leadership. Women account for less than 30 percent of today’s senators and representatives, less than 10 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives, and none of the United States presidents.

The most common explanations for these inequalities tend to be institutional, blaming sexism among voters and corporate boards, old-boy networks that bar women from career development, and inequitable parental leave. But several new studies suggest that the fault is not exclusively in our institutions but also in ourselves. Teenagers and young couples still cling to the traditional notion that career success is a male drama in which women must do their best in a supporting role.

The modern world still isn’t ready for successful women.

As more women entered the labor force in the last quarter of the 20th century, their children became more familiar with working mothers. This might make you think that Millennials and members of Generation Z are cheerleaders for feminist principles.

“But that’s not really the case,” says Brittany Dernberger, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, who co-authored a recent paper on 12th graders’ attitudes toward relationships and work since the 1970s. Today, young men and women say that the most desirable relationship is a traditional marriage, where the husband works full-time and the wife’s career comes second or not at all.

From 1976 to 2014, teenagers polled by the Monitoring the Future survey became more accepting of women working more but hardly more eager for women’s work to come first. For example, in the late ’70s, 80 percent of teenagers said that wives working full-time was “not at all acceptable.” Four decades later, that number had fallen to 30 percent. But in that time, the share of teenagers who said that mothers working full-time was “desirable” increased just two points—from a measly 3 percent to an equally measly 5 percent. There was little difference between the attitudes of young men and young women in the survey. “Young people are open to a variety of marital arrangements, but what they desire is still very traditional,” Dernberger says.

According to Dernberger, the rise in “acceptability” may be a result of economic anxiety, not progressive feminism. Black teenagers have historically embraced dual-earner households more than their white peers, she says, perhaps because they were more likely to grow up in families in which both parents had to work to make ends meet. As more white families have found themselves in that situation, white teens have moved closer to the position of their black peers.

The rising support for dual-earner households, then, may reflect that more young men think “working wives are necessary to afford a modern life,” not “I look forward to cherishing my future wife’s career.”

Perhaps, you’re thinking, American teenagers are mired in gender traditionalism because American capitalism has made it impossible for women, and especially working mothers, to prioritize a career on their own terms. Surely things would be different in a country with considerably more welfare spending, higher unionization rates to protect workers, cheap public child care to give new mothers their time back, and federally paid parental leave to level the playing field between fathers and mothers. Like in Sweden.

But even in one of the world’s most famous social-democratic paradises, a tension persists between career success and family life. A new paper from the Swedish researchers Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne looked at how career milestones affect marriages in their country. It found that certain kinds of promotions nearly double the rate of divorce for women, but not for men.

In Sweden, women who were elected mayor or parliamentarian were more likely to get divorced than men who won the same elections. The same was true in the corporate world, where women promoted to chief executive were twice as likely to divorce within five years of their promotion as men. (Several U.S. studies have shown that American women downplay their career ambitions on dates and that marriages where the wife’s earnings exceed her husband’s are more likely to end in divorce.)

What’s going on? Even in Sweden—which has a higher proportion of female CEOs and politicians than the U.S.—the researchers described strong cultural norms for young women to find “the prince in the story,” a man whose career success would chiefly determine their material well-being. Most romantic relationships are still “traditional” (that is unbalanced or unequal), in which women marry older men and take on the majority of housework and child care.

When women establish a professional career of their own, particularly one that eclipses that of their husband, their success seems to threaten the implicit contract of the marriage and cause acrimony. Divorce was especially likely when the recently promoted wife was at least four years younger than the husband and when she had taken the great majority of parental leave time. In select interviews, the researchers heard from some men that their newly successful wives “didn’t care about him or the household anymore,” as they put it in an email to me. “The man did not take pride in her promotion but rather thought that she didn’t care about him as much as she used to.”

Happiness is certainly possible in heterosexual marriages in which the husband earns almost all the income, or ones in which the woman does. This paper suggests that what’s most destabilizing is the overturning of initial expectations. Swedish couples that evenly shared office work, housework, and child care from the beginning were more resilient when the role of breadwinner flipped from the husband to the wife. But many marriages that initially treasured the husband’s career couldn’t survive the woman’s success.

These two papers—one on American teens, and the other on Swedish marriages—suggest that the West isn’t nearly as progressive as we might think on the issue of female ambition and success.

A traditional conservative might look at these two studies and conclude that the dual-career dream of progressive feminism is an unworkable fantasy in the real world, the sort of thing that leftists just want other people to want. A certain kind of Marxist, meanwhile, will insist that all suffering and unfairness in this world is a matter of political economy, and the perfect labor, welfare, and capital-ownership policies will unleash pure gender equality and marital bliss.

While my views on the matter align more closely with the latter group, I think both perspectives are wrong. It is conceivable that in some future post-capitalist society, gender inequities will melt away, along with the notions of private property and enterprise. But in the world that exists, better public policy is a necessary but insufficient component of a fully equal society. What also matters is private policy—the way that couples talk, plan, share, and adapt when their lives or preferences change. The Swedish paper in particular shows that couples need to take responsibility for the division of labor within their own relationships. “There needs to be more awareness that the way we form couples is not ideal for when the wife progresses in her career,” Folke and Rickne said in their email.

The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan, writing about Gerwig's Little Women, remarked that the film proved there is “something powerful about domestic life.” These studies offer the same lesson. It may be the civic responsibility of voters and their elected representatives to give ambitious women the space and opportunity to achieve their full potential. But a marriage is its own sovereign state, with explicit contracts and implicit regulations, and the division of labor in couples of all ages is the domestic responsibility of the men and women within them. Gender equality will not be achieved with optimal parental-leave policies alone.