- Kate Morgan
When Kerry was in her 20s, she had a job in social work. She made enough money to both pay her expenses and also put some aside in a savings account. Her long-term partner was a graduate student who worked part time, and Kerry, as the primary earner, paid most of the bills. But when he graduated and got a job offer, things changed.
“He ended up getting a job halfway across the country,” says Chicago-based Kerry, now in her 30s. “I quit my job and moved with him. Even though I was really happy in my career and my life, I basically abandoned it for a place where I didn’t know anybody and couldn’t find a job.”
Over time, Kerry realised she’d fully prioritised her partner’s career over her own – to her detriment. She felt the whole move had set back her own career and earnings by several years.
Even though women outpace men in education, and, in the US, make up close to half the labour force, many women still share Kerry’s experience. Researchers for Deloitte’s Women @ Work 2023 report surveyed 5,000 women across 10 countries, 98% of whom were in heterosexual relationships. The data found that nearly 40% of respondents say their partner’s career takes precedence. They cited several reasons, ranging from financial and social factors to the burden of caretaking and household responsibilities.
But the biggest reason women in the Deloitte survey cited for prioritising their partner’s career over their own was that their male partners earned more money. That’s unsurprising, given that, worldwide, some data shows women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.
“Naturally, there will be some individuals who say, ‘well, this person earns the most’,’” says London-based Emma Codd, the global diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Deloitte. “Particularly when times are tough, you may end up in a situation where the person that earns less says, ‘well, my career will take the backseat’, whether that’s a conscious or unconscious decision.”
Either way, that choice is rational, adds Pamela Stone, a professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York City, who co-authored the books Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home and Opting Back In: What Really Happens When Mothers Go Back to Work. Stone says many of the women she interviewed for the two books “saw a man going full speed ahead and prospering. And so, when it came to making their own internal decisions, they’d say things like ‘I knew he was going to be able to make so much more money than I could’”.
The choice becomes less emotional, says Stone, when it’s about dollars and cents. “It’s not about the women being visionless, or not being liberal, progressive, etcetera,” she says. “It’s about who has the better chance. If you’re a betting person, you’re going to bet on the man’s career being stronger, because there is gender discrimination in the market.”
But making that bet kicks off a vicious circle, says Codd, because women who deprioritise their own career are less likely to ever reach their true earning potential, or be able to match their partner’s income.
“The reality is it’d be great to see more women being the primary earner,” says Codd. “But if so many of these women are not prioritising their career, then the chances of becoming the primary earner in the family are likely to be reduced.”
But even if a woman’s income does begin to exceed her spouse’s, that’s still not a guarantee that her career will become the priority. In many cases cited in the Deloitte report, women who were the higher earners still put their jobs second to their partner’s. One in 10 women said they were the primary earner in their partnership, yet 20% of that group still felt pressured to prioritise the other’s career.
“That number was the bit that was stunning to us,” says Codd. “Whether there’s a cultural element that comes in to explain that… who knows.”
This may mean that women aren’t only prioritising their husbands’ careers because of money: there are social pressures and expectations at play, too.
In a multi-generational study, Stone and her colleagues interviewed more than 25,000 graduates of Harvard Business School. They found that although the “vast majority” of those women expected an egalitarian marriage where both careers were of equal importance, more than half of all the men surveyed, from Baby Boomers to millennials, expected their careers would take precedence.
The men expected to be the “breadwinner”, a term imbued with meaning well beyond being the person who makes more money. Research from the University of Bath in the UK suggests men’s mental well-being is tied to whether they make more money than their opposite sex partner. And a 2023 Pew Research Center survey showed that even if couples earn similar amounts, they still fell into traditional gender roles, with men spending more time on paid work and leisure activity, and women taking on the majority of child caring and housework.
When men consider themselves breadwinners, some research shows they have less respect for their wives’ careers and are less flexible around them. And that, too, is a circle, says Stone, who notes that when a man devalues his wife’s career, it leaves little space for her to rise to meet or exceed his.
But male partners in a heterosexual relationship aren’t alone in perpetuating the cycle. Sometimes women play a part in devaluing their own careers; intentionally, to keep the peace in a relationship, or unintentionally, because the scales tip without them being fully aware it’s happening. In Kerry’s relationship, she says it became clear her partner was content with the uneven balance they’d fallen into, with her career taking the back seat. She recalls him telling her, “I like taking care of you”, a sentiment she knew was well-meaning, but that still made her chafe.
“I just didn't feel like the sacrifices I was making were appreciated as much as they should have been,” she says. “I don't think he ever fully understood.” Kerry says slipping into a traditionally accepted gender role, and pushing her own ambition aside, happened without her really noticing. Eventually though, she realized that wasn’t what she wanted, and the pair broke up.
“People fall into gender norms,” says Codd. “It can happen totally unconsciously.”
Experts say women also deprioritise their own careers because they are spinning so many other plates, especially regarding home and family responsibilities, which fall heavily to women. According to the Deloitte report, “Despite the fact that 88% of respondents work full time, nearly half of them have primary responsibility for domestic tasks such as cleaning or caring for dependents. Only around 10% say that these responsibilities fall to their partner.”
Simply, says Codd, they could be deprioritising their careers out of sheer fatigue. “Frankly, you're working full time, and then you're going home and doing a load of stuff in the evenings, and on weekends, and before you go to work,” she says. “The exhaustion, the burnout – all the things we know around mental health – you can imagine choice may be along the lines of, you know what, I don't have the energy. I don't have the time to dedicate to furthering my career.”
Even if they haven’t consciously decided to prioritise caretaking and other household responsibilities over their career, Codd says labour still primarily falls on women.
“Those responsibilities sometimes don't go away,” she says, “And they sometimes intrude into your working day. We all know that progressing in the workplace isn't just about turning up and doing your job. But if you're deprioritising your career versus someone else's, or you just know someone needs to do all this stuff at home, are you going to take that stretch opportunity? Chances are, you might not.”