Women's Economic Standing, Marriage Timing, and Cross-National Contexts of Gender

Article excerpt

Proponents of the theory of specialization and exchange hypothesize that in any national context, women's higher economic standing will decrease their chance of marriage. Some researchers suggest, however, that only in industrialized countries with a high degree of role differentiation by gender does the inverse relationship between women's economic standing and the chance of marriage exist. To evaluate contrasting cross-national predictions, I test with longitudinal data and standardized methods whether the inverse relationship exists in 3 similarly affluent industrialized countries that vary in their degree of role differentiation by gender: the United States, Japan (a context more differentiated by gender than the United States), and Sweden (a context less differentiated by gender than the United States). Contrary to the prediction that develops out of the theory of specialization and exchange, results indicate that women's higher levels of income discourage first marriage formation in Japan, but encourage it in the United States and Sweden.

Key Words: cross-national, gender, income, marriage.

Does the expanding economic role of women weaken the institution of marriage in all contexts or only in contexts where men's and women's roles are highly differentiated? Although this issue has received some attention in analyses of a single industrialized country (e.g., South, 2001; Sweeney, 2002), it has received limited attention cross-nationally among industrialized countries. In this study, I investigate whether an inverse relationship between women's economic standing (as measured by income) and marriage timing (as measured by the chance of first marriage in a time interval) is present in all national contexts (i.e., the universality hypothesis) or only in national contexts with a relatively high degree of role differentiation by gender (i.e., the gender-contextual variation hypothesis). This is the first study to evaluate systematically the competing hypotheses cross-nationally. The cross-national framework permits a more general test of the hypotheses by allowing the inclusion of a broad range of contexts of gendered role differentiation. Such a range is difficult to obtain, even over a few decades, within a single industrialized country because of constraints imposed by cultural homogeneity. Three countries (Japan, the United States, and Sweden) are selected for analysis because (a) they occupy contrasting points on a continuum of role differentiation by gender, even though they are similarly affluent (Norris & Inglehart, 2000), and (b) they have collected relevant nationally representative panel data. I apply standardized methods with appropriate controls to three panel data sets: the Panel Study of Income Dynamics of the United States (PSID), 1990-1997; the Japanese Panel Survey on Consumers (JPSC), 1993-1997; and the Swedish Household Market and Nonmarket Activity (SHMNA), 1993-1996.


The Hypotheses

Leading theories of marriage formation are built on the view that men and women marry when they are better off doing so than remaining single (e.g., Becker, 1981). Although these theories commonly suggest that women's economic resources alter the costs and benefits of entering marriage for individuals, they differ on how the resources alter the costs and benefits.

The universality hypothesis, implied by the theory of specialization and exchange (e.g., Becker, 1981), is the prediction that, in all contexts, women with a higher (current) economic standing will delay marriage formation. The proponents of this theory argue that nonspecialized division of labor within a family, as indicated in part by a greater availability of women's economic resources, is not as efficient as a specialized division of labor, in which men work in the labor market and women work in the home (see Oppenheimer, 1997). According to this theory, the inefficiency creates disincentives that prevent women with higher economic standing from entering marriage (at a given time). …


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