Wives' Relative Wages, Husbands' Paid Work Hours, and Wives' Labor-Force Exit

By Shafer, Emily Fitzgibbons | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Wives' Relative Wages, Husbands' Paid Work Hours, and Wives' Labor-Force Exit


Shafer, Emily Fitzgibbons, Journal of Marriage and Family


Economic theories predict that women are more likely to exit the labor force if their partners' earnings are higher and if their own wage rate is lower. In this article, I use the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (N = 2,254) and discrete-time event-history analysis to show that wives' relative wages are more predictive of their exit than are their own or their husbands' absolute wages. In addition, I show that women married to men who work more than 45 hours per week are more likely to exit the labor force than are wives whose husbands' work approximately 40 hours per week. My findings highlight the need to examine how women's partners affect women's labor-force participation.

Key Words: labor-force participation, women's earnings, women's employment, work hours.

One of the largest demographic changes of the second half of the twentieth century was the increase in the proportion of women in the labor market. The proportion of women who worked outside their homes increased rapidly from the 1960s to the 1990s; many believed that this trend would continue until women reached parity with men. However, in the 1 990s, women's labor-force participation rate leveled off and even slightly decreased in the early 2000s (Percheski, 2008; Vere, 2007). Today, women's labor-force participation is roughly equivalent to what it was before the current economic recession (Pilon, 2010). The popular press picked up on this reverse in trend; multiple articles described a return to the appeal of being a stayat-home mother among women (Belkin, 2003; Story, 2007). Although the press wildly exaggerated the magnitude of the decrease in women's employment, it did make one point that research confirmed - a major reason married mothers cite for wanting to stay home is the difficulty (anticipated or actual) of combining paid and unpaid work (Stone, 2008).

Women's exit from the labor force is a concern for multiple reasons. A break in employment can have a significant, negative impact on a woman's earnings when she returns to the labor force. This is true even for women who are out of the labor force for a short period of time. Hewlett and Luce (2005) estimated that a 2- to 3-year exit can cause a 30% decline in earnings upon professional women's reentry to the labor force. Exit is one of the main contributors to the large gender gap in lifetime earnings (Rose & Hartmann, 2004) and is a reason women face a decline in standard of living after divorce, which half of married women will experience (Cherlin, 2010; Raley & Bumpass, 2003). In addition, scholars interested in gender equality in heterosexual marriage have noted that power in the relationship flows form earnings (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; England & Kilbourne, 1990; Lundberg & Pollak, 1 996). Women with no earnings may therefore face the largest inequality in power in their marital relationships.

Despite the cause for concern about deleterious effects of women's nonemployment, there is little scholarly work that focuses on identifying what specifically predicts women's labor-market exits. The existing work has focused almost exclusively on which characteristics of women - namely their absolute earnings and fertility - promote labor-force exit. In this article, I argue that more attention should be paid to the relationships in which the women are embedded when considering women's laborforce participation. Specifically, the purpose of this article is to further our understanding of wives' employment exits through examining two formerly unexamined husband influences - the percentage contribution a woman's wages represent of her and her husband's total wages, and her husband's time spent in paid employment (which is relevant because it is time when a husband is not available for domestic work). Specifically, my research questions are the following: Does the proportion of total wages that a wife brings to a household predict whether she will leave the labor force, holding constant both her and her husband's absolute wage? …

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