Whose Job Comes First?

As more women become breadwinners, dual-income couples must decide who manages the household. Korn Ferry's Evelyn Orr asks: Is money all that matters?

At a time when the world needs strong leadership, it’s all hands on deck. Yet data shows that women continue to be an underleveraged resource. In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, will explore the intersection of career, relationships, and gender and the impact on families, organizations, and society.

The frenetic pace of running a household with two full-time working parents can lead couples to wonder how to slow down, make more time, and decrease pressure. On more than one occasion my husband has offered, “Maybe I should stop working—that would make our lives so much easier.”

It may seem odd that my husband is the one offering to place his career on the chopping block so readily, but we are part of an increasing trend: I’m the primary breadwinner. The percentage of American women who earn more than their husbands (in marriages where both partners work) has increased from 18% in 1987 to 29% in 2015.

From a purely logical and practical standpoint, it makes sense for couples to do the math and figure out who should keep working, or whose job should be considered primary versus supplementary. For an even more sophisticated analysis, couples may look at projected earning potential over time. Approaching the decision as the CFO of your household seems like a neutral, data-based way to operate. Unfortunately, for the majority of dual-income couples, there is gender bias baked into that equation.

A recent study by Korn Ferry Hay Group looked at 8 million working people across 33 different countries and found that the average gender pay gap was less than 2% when comparing men and women in the same jobs, at the same company, and in the same function. That difference would probably not factor too heavily into a decision about who should stay home with the kids. The problem is women and men are not doing the same jobs in the same places.

Globally, the percentage of the workforce at entry-level professional positions is 61% men, 39% women. The balance keeps shifting away from parity at the management level, which is 73% men and 27% women. The trend continues into executive levels with 83% men and 17% women. And, don’t forget the top job: CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are currently held by 94% men and 6% women. This is important, because job level explains most of the difference in pay between men and women. When the study doesn’t control for job level, company and function, the difference in pay between men and women is 18%, meaning that men on average make 18% more than women. For couples and families, that 18% can be the deciding factor.

In addition to job level, the type of job or industry can have a big impact on earning potential. Unfortunately, women are outnumbered by men in high-earning STEM fields. And women are the majority of workers in lower-paying professions such as hospitality, teaching, or helping professions. Regardless of all the factors that have reinforced these trends, women’s professions and earning potential have been devalued from the start, which makes the conversation between a husband and wife about whose job is primary and whose is supplementary a loaded and biased one.

My husband and I are in the reverse situation. I am a corporate executive who leads research and development teams, and he is in a helping profession. So, you may ask, what have my husband and I decided to do when it comes to figuring out whose job comes first? And for us, the answer wasn’t to make it all about money.

Several years ago, my husband did stay home with our kids for a few years. It was wonderful in many ways, but one thing we learned is that he finds meaning and purpose in his work. And he has so much to offer it would be a shame to keep him all to ourselves. It isn’t his fault that the market and society put a lower value on his work compared to mine.

Instead of studying a financial spreadsheet to see whether it’s really worth his working all those hours when he could be helping our household run more smoothly, we are using a different measuring stick. In his work, he is fulfilled, intellectually stimulated and making important contributions to the community and people’s lives. Our kids get to learn about two very different careers. And we suspect that despite the daily stresses, having a dual-career family is good for our well-being in the long run. For us, that translates into valuing our work and careers equally, no matter what our paychecks say.