With women now surpassing men in educational attainment, and the most educated women more likely to be married, it seems reasonable to assume that a husband’s income would be less important to the marriage contract than in the past, particularly for women with advanced degrees. But recent research indicates that is not the case: male breadwinning continues to be central to not only marriage formation but also marital stability.
A new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family adds to this research by examining how women’s educational advancements in recent decades have impacted marriage patterns among newlywed heterosexual couples. It found that “the tendency for women to marry men with higher incomes has persisted.”
The study, “Gender Asymmetry in Educational and Assortative Marriage,” is based on data from the 1980 census and the American Community Survey (ACS) 2008–2012 five-year sample. The sample included U.S.-born couples in which both the husband and wife were aged 18 to 55, and married for the first time within approximately one year prior to the census or ACS.
The study’s author, Yue Qian, assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, recently discussed her findings with IFS via email. Following is that discussion, which has been edited for length:
We’ve seen significant changes in the education gender gap in recent decades, with women now earning more university degrees than men. What impact has this had on marriage patterns?
Yue Qian: Indeed, women have made greater gains in education than men during the past few decades in the United States and, to some extent, globally. Between 1980 and 2008-2012, educational assortative mating patterns (i.e., patterns of who marries whom in terms of education) have also changed. Among newlywed couples, the percentage of couples in which the husband had more education than the wife declined from 24 percent in 1980 to 15 percent in 2008–2012, whereas the share of couples in which the wife had more education than the husband increased from 22 percent to 29 percent during the same period. In other words, if two spouses differed in their level of education, in 1980 the husband was more likely to have more education, but in 2008–2012, the wife was more likely to be the more educated spouse.
You found that despite advancements in women’s educational achievement and workforce participation, women continue to marry up in income, especially when they are more educated than their husbands. Tell us more about that finding.
Yue Qian: For analytical purpose, I classified each individual’s income by the decile he or she occupied in the income distribution of the 1980 and 2008–2012 analytic samples, respectively. My study showed that for a majority of couples, husbands were in a higher income decile than their wives regardless of the time period and the educational pairing of spouses.
Using sophisticated statistical models (log-linear models) to control for gender differences and shifts in marginal distributions of education and income, I found that the tendency for women to marry up in income was greater when they married down in education: Women were 93 percent more likely to marry men in higher income deciles than themselves among couples in which the wife had more education than the husband than among couples in which the wife had less education than the husband.
What about couples with similar education levels?
Yue Qian: For the most part, the tendency for women to marry up in income was greater among couples who shared the same education level: When compared with couples in which the wife had less education than the husband, the tendency for women to marry up in income was 54 percent higher among couples in which both spouses had a high school education, 31 percent higher among couples in which both spouses had some college education, and 23 percent higher among couples in which both spouses had a college degree or above.
You did find one exception—among couples where both the husband and wife had low levels of education. Why do think the pattern differed for these couples?
Yue Qian: Couples in which both spouses had very low levels of education appeared to be an exception to this pattern: The tendency for women to marry up in income did not differ significantly between couples in which both spouses had less than a high school education and couples in which the wife had less education than the husband.
It was beyond the scope of my study to investigate why it was the case, but I can make some speculations based on recent family and economic trends. Men with no high school diploma, but not their female counterparts, have experienced a dramatic decline in income in recent decades. The economic vulnerability of men with very low levels of education suggests that a pronounced tendency for women to marry up in income may not be particularly evident among couples in which both spouses have less than a high school education.
Did it surprise you at all that despite women having more education and opportunity than ever before, most still prefer to marry men with higher incomes?
Yue Qian: No, I was not really surprised because prior research has found a stalling of progress toward gender equality since the 1990s, suggesting that the norm against marriages in which women have higher status than their husbands may also have changed little in recent decades. My study resonated with this line of research and showed that men and women continued to form marriages in which the wife’s socioeconomic status did not exceed that of the husband.
Some well-educated women today choose to step out of the workforce temporarily to be at home with their children. Do you think this could be at least part of the reason that higher educated women still “marry up” in income—perhaps so they’ll have the option of working less when they have young children?
Yue Qian: My study did not directly speak to this question, but I think because mate selection is a two-sided process, we need to make sense of those marriage patterns from both women’s and men’s perspectives. From women’s perspective, with increases in their economic independence implied by their high levels of education, women do not necessarily lower the value attached to financial resources of potential spouses. The growing income inequality in recent decades likely increases the costs of women marrying down economically.
From men’s perspective, although men have placed more importance on the financial prospects of a potential spouse over time, some studies have suggested that they may value women’s high status only up to the point when women’s status exceeds their own status. Thus, men may hesitate to form marital relationships with women who have both more education and higher incomes than they do.
Do you believe that a husband’s income will continue to play a considerable role in marriage patterns in the future?
Yue Qian: My study did not discredit the importance of education in shaping marriage patterns, but it advanced prior research toward a more comprehensive understanding of mate selection by taking income into consideration. Indeed, income may have become increasingly important in the selection of marriage partners in recent decades. As individuals marry at later ages, and often after they have attained stable employment, income, and even wealth, they may increasingly use income, as opposed to education level, as the main marker of a potential spouse’s economic prospects. As long as gender pay gaps continue to favor men, the role of the remarkable advances in women’s educational attainment in redefining gender role expectations in American families may be more limited than assumed.