Gender and Fairness: Marital Satisfaction in Two-Earner Couples

Article excerpt

We investigate the relationship between marital satisfaction and the family division of both paid and domestic work, and we assess whether value preferences for the gender division, the balance of power, and perceptions of equity and empathy mediate this relationship in a random sample of 382 two-earner married couples. Using a path analysis, we find that the division of labor and role preferences affect marital satisfaction mainly through perceptions of fairness, but what is "fair" is different for husbands and wives. The gendered meanings attached to domestic and paid work are important in understanding these differences and lend support to a gendered model of marital satisfaction.

Key Words: division of labor, fairness, gender, marital satisfaction, two-earner marriage.

Since the 1960s, the family division of labor has changed markedly in at least one respect. In the majority of married couples of the 1990s, husbands are no longer the sole breadwinners (Wilkie, 1991). It is uncertain whether couples find shared breadwinning satisfying, particularly because there has been little change in wives' responsibility for family domestic work. Many employed married women face a "double day" or a "second shift," combining paid and unpaid work (Goldscheider & Waite, 1991; Hochschild, 1989). On average, employed wives work fewer hours for pay than husbands and earn less, while their husbands still do less than a third of the domestic labor. However, these averages conceal considerable variation in how paid and unpaid work is divided (Ferree, 1991; Hochschild, 1989; Spitze, 1988).

We investigate the relationship between variations in the division of labor and wives' and husbands' marital satisfaction among two-earner couples. This study extends prior research on the family division of labor and marital satisfaction in several ways. First, we address how the actual division of paid and unpaid work relates to husbands' and wives' marital satisfaction. We ask whether men's marital satisfaction is more influenced by the division of income, the arena for which men are conventionally held responsible, or whether women's marital satisfaction is more influenced by the division of domestic work, the arena for which women are conventionally held responsible. We look at work as a gendered experience, and we consider how net differences in the total division of labor (hours on the job and in domestic labor combined) contribute to perceptions of unfairness.

This research also examines the specific mediating processes by which the division of labor affects husbands' and wives' marital satisfaction. We employ a combination of equity theory and gender theory to examine these mediating processes. This approach leads us not only to specific predictions about perceived inequity, but also to gendered processes that may make perceptions of fairness less relevant. We expect that couples will divide their work differently depending on their values and that each partner's interpretations based on feelings of threat, love, or perceived fairness may lead to different effects on marital satisfaction than the division of labor alone.

We focus our analysis on two-earner married couples for several reasons. First, among twoearner couples, gender norms are most contested (Hochschild, 1989). The norm of male breadwinning is directly challenged by wives' employment, and employed wives are more likely than fulltime housewives to expect their husbands to share domestic work (Potuchek, 1992). Second, perceived equity in the gender division of family labor is most problematic for two-earner couples. Women with paid jobs have an average total workday that is longer than the workday of their husbands or of full-time housewives, but only about one quarter of employed married women report finding the status quo unfair (Geerken & Gove, 1983; Pleck, 1985; Spitze, 1988). Finally, two-earner families are today's dominant pattern. …

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