The real reason why women are usually the ‘trailing spouse’ |
Home > Career Advice > Featured Story > The real reason why women are usually the ‘trailing spouse’

The real reason why women are usually the ‘trailing spouse’

Published on Saturday, 06 Dec 2014
Photo: istockphoto

Abody of established research suggests that when two-income couples move for job reasons, it is usually for the sake of the male partner's career. It often hurts the woman's work ambitions and her salary. And it typically puts a strain on their relationship.

Some academics suggest the "trailing spouse" phenomenon is based on traditionally accepted gender roles in which the male partner's career takes priority. Others conclude that it happens for practical reasons that have more to do with a man's greater earning potential. In this scenario, it is his job that will lead to greater gains in household income, so it is his job that takes precedent.

At least, that is how the thinking goes. Recent research has reached a different conclusion.

A study recently published in the journal Demography does not dispute the tendency to move for a husband's career. Rather, the new study takes issue with the reasons behind the move.

A surprising conclusion is that women enter professions that make it easy to work anywhere, and move for any reason, including for a spouse, while men choose careers in fields that are geographically constrained.

In other words, to move up, men have to move on.

Alan Benson, the study's author and an assistant professor at the Carlson School of Management of the University of Minnesota, analysed census data on jobs and gender. His research shows that men dominate the more geographically "clustered" jobs - such as oil and gas engineers - while women dominate professions that are ubiquitous, such as primary schoolteachers.

"The tendency for men to move more often than women is completely explained by the types of jobs they enter, not that they are men or women," Benson says.

"Men who enter female-dominated jobs don't tend to move as much for work. If you look at women who enter male-dominated jobs, they tend to move a lot," he says.

And if you look at women who are not married, they relocate for a job less often than men do.

All of this raises an intriguing question: Why do women gravitate toward certain jobs, while men do not?

It may have a lot to do with career and family expectations that form early in life. If everyone generally assumes that families will put the husband's career first, then maybe this compels women to choose certain types of jobs - which is disturbing. "It suggests that occupational segregation is largely self-fulfilling," Benson says.

This is happening even though women are more educated and more successful than ever. For every two men who get a bachelor's degree today, there are more than three women who get one.

Then there is this twist, also from Benson's research: Women who choose to enter into the geographically clustered jobs dominated by men have a higher divorce rate than women in dispersed jobs.

That result - combined with his other research, scheduled to be published in the journal Industrial Relations - suggests that women who move for a spouse's career and those who move to advance their careers are penalised no matter what.

The Washington Post

Become our fans