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The Rich Husband

Vivia Chen

March 11, 2012

CarrieBigI'll get into trouble for airing this one. Many women would rather bury the topic.

But if we're sitting in a nice restaurant, downing our second or third cocktail, at some point one of us will say: "If I hear from another woman that it no longer makes sense for her to keep working and pay the babysitter, I will strangle her."

What's the verboten topic? Women aren't always dropping out of high-pressure careers because of work/life balance difficulties; truth is, some dump the job because their husbands are making a boatload of money.

And I mean a big boat. We're not talking about the 1 percenters (that would only be $368,238), but more like the 0.01 percenters—in the seven digit range. In the rarefied circles of Manhattan where private school tuition now exceeds $40,000, it would be tough for a family to cut it as a 1 percenter.

I know it seems like a caricature—that expensively educated women would retreat to the role of housewife (actually, penthousewife) as soon as their hubbies hit the jackpot. But haven't we all seen this play out in big-law firms?

That phenomenon is not just anecdotal. In a forth coming study, Stefania Albanesi, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, says well-educated women are throwing in the towel because their husbands dramatically out-earn them. (In case you haven't heard, the top earners have recovered from the recession quite nicely.)

Reports Reuters's Tiziana Barghini

"In the last 20 years, wages for highly educated males increased so much that they dwarfed the family's second income, usually the one of their wives," said Albanesi, who coauthored the study with Columbia University graduate student Maria Prados.

"The result was that sometimes married women exited the labor force midcareer, exactly around the time their husbands are promoted to more senior roles. They stopped getting income they didn't need and so they left the labor force forever."

The Reuters article starts off with a look at the career of Susanna Mancini, a onetime gung-ho lawyer who had risen through the ranks at Citibank:

But her career eventually succumbed to something Mancini never expected would end her rise at the bank—her husband's even bigger success. She quit in 2005 when her six-digit income was overtaken by his seven-digit one.

"At that point, it was clear that my wage had become family pocket money. There was a real opportunity to do other things that did not require being chained to a desk," said Mancini, now 50.

But I don't think the study is accusing women of taking the easy way out; rather, it warns of the dangers of wage discrepancy between the genders. "Albanesi links the decline in the number of well-educated, married women entering the labor force to a sharp rise in salaries for top earners in the United States, and in particular, for men," reports Reuters. The result is that the "loss may hurt economic growth at a time when the nation can ill afford to have highly skilled workers on the sidelines."

To be honest, though, I'm not quite sure what the takeaway is. Is the message behind the study that hidden gender biases cause women to quit demanding jobs? Or is it saying that it's just easier for both sexes to lapse into traditional roles and expectations if money isn't an issue?

Related posts: Women Feel Less Ambitious; Blame the Babies; Harvard Law Women Opt Out.

 Hat tip: ABA Blog.

Photo: Sex in the City (Carrie and Mr. Big)

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I think this is a perfect example of a skewed sample. There are far more people who are not in this position.

Thank you Vivian, for broaching this sensitive topic. This topic was explored in a Spearhead essay about my Asian wife, a successful entrepreneur who now stays at home and cooks for me. And I don't make much money either :

A Man Wants a Wife, Not a “Co-Worker”


I agree with Rose. Whichever gender is the breadwinner, healthy marriages and families consist of two capable people who see increasing the family's quality of life - which is only dependent on income up to a point - as being *part* of their personal fulfillment, not at odds with it. The idea that valuable and fulfilling life work must come with a paycheck or be conducted in an office is antiquated.

My husband and I were study partners in law school. 5 years out of school, he went to work as a regulator in the financial industry. I became a law firm partner. In those two careers, I dramatically out-earned him. After juggling the demands of two careers and two children for quite a while, we decided we didn't need to do that anymore - one job was enough. I suppose I could have been the one to stay home - my husband could have left his regulator's job and moved to an investment bank where his income would be high enough to replace mine - but instead he decided to "retire" and become a stay-at-home dad, philanthropist, artist and consultant. It has been two years since then, and so far it is a "happily ever after" story.

I agree with Rose - now how can I convince my husband to stay home?

Rose hit the nail on the head. Neither gender can manage a demanding job and a family without a supportive partner, which sometimes requires one partner to tend to domestic duties full-time.

My wife thought it important that her future husband be at least as "successful" as her - she measured that by education, which can play itself out ultimately in higher salary. Would the women discussed in the article have happily married someone who earns less than them? If they earn 300,000, would they marry someone who earns 50,000? If not, and they earn a mid-six figure salary, then we shouldn't be surprised that they're being out-earned by someone who earns so much money that they no longer need to work.

Separately, Vivia mentions Manhattan. The only way for someone to stay in Manhattan long-term with a family if they're earning low-mid six-figures and don't have another source of income is to marry someone with even more money. It's been many years since I've dated, but women, including high earners and future high earners like lawyers and med residents, had first-date questions like exactly what my job was, whether I intended to continue doing it, and where my apartment was located (and did I own it).

Vivia - Where I live, in Chicago's northern suburbs, the scenario you describe is the norm. Most of these highly educated women turn to planning parties, called 'benefits,' and grace the social pages of the local media.

I think the message here is that really demanding careers are actually two-person jobs.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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