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Does marriage close the wealth gap between men and women?

Today on OUPblog we’re celebrating the 100th International Women’s Day. Since one of the early demands of the women who founded IWD was for better pay, I’ve invited our wonderful publicity intern Aryana Fargo to choose passages from Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It, in which author Mariko Lin Chang explores the wealth inequality and explains how she thinks it can be resolved. Women have come a long way in the last 100 years, but the truth is that contemporary social structure still puts women at a disadvantage to their male counterparts, especially when it comes to generating wealth. While the income inequality between men and women is common knowledge, many are unaware of the more subtle ways in which women have less access to and control over wealth.

THE GOOD NEWS:
The American gender wage ratio is at an all-time high, 77.8%.

THE BAD NEWS:
Single women ages 18 – 64 have only 36¢ of wealth to the single man’s $1.
Due to the racial wealth gap, women of color are at the bottom.
In 2004, single white women had around $24,000 in wealth.
African-American women at the median had only $2000 extra.
Latina women had $0.

*          *          *

Some may wonder if gender differences in wealth are important. After all, don’t most men and women marry, rendering any gender wealth difference relatively unimportant? Actually, about half of all households are headed by single (never-married, widowed, or divorced) persons, which makes the wealth gap between men and women a reality for a large percentage of people. Also, prominent social circumstances prevent women from closing the wealth gap through marriage. First, the protection that is offered by marriage will disappear for large groups of women, since about half of all marriages end in divorce. Second, men and women are marrying at later ages, leaving women with more years in which they are self-supporting. In fact, women now spend more of their adult years single than married. [...]

Sociologists studying power dynamics within families have shown that if one partner is economically dependent on the other, the more dependent partner will have less power in the marriage. Since women often earn less than men, they are more likely to be the economically dependent spouse. Women’s economic dependency has been identified as a primary mechanism contributing to gender inequality more broadly. For example, economic dependency makes it more difficult for women to leave dysfunctional marriages and abusive relationships.

Even in less extreme situations, a woman’s economic dependency often renders her needs or desires secondary since she is not the one bringing in the money. It also sets the stage for further economic dependency. For example, if a couple with a new baby would like one parent to stay home, even though most egalitarian couples will likely decide that, all else being equal, the one who earns less and has lower potential future earnings should exit the labor force. Women’s economic dependency thus reinforces the traditional division of labor, in which men work in the labor market for money and women take care of the family. Although women’s work at home is important and valuable, it is not financially rewarded. If a woman re-enters the labor market at a later time, her years at home rarely add to her reservoir of job-related skills, and no one in the United States earns pension or Social Security benefits for unpaid caregiving (although people in some other countries do). [...]

In American society, it is customary to think of the wealth of a married couple as belonging to both the husband and the wife equally. Consequently, many might assume that the women’s wealth gap wasn’t an issue for married couples; however, research indicates that the reality is much more complicated than we might have imagined. With marriage, the gender difference in wealth is transformed from having less of one’s own wealth to a latent inequality in which women often have less control over the wealth. The shift is subtle, but it demonstrates that the women’s wealth gap exists even in marriage and is therefore salient for all women.

Easily quantifiable gender differences in wealth for single people do not translate directly to marital relationships. Marriage involves its own set of norms and expectations that shape the ways that gender influences control over wealth in marriage. Married women may experience a wealth gap in terms of control over marital wealth, but this aspect of the gender wealth gap is oftentimes “hidden” within the bounds of marriage. The tendency to view marital wealth as communal has undermined our appreciation of the pervasiveness of the women’s wealth gap…tensions between equality in marriage and traditional gender roles (often strengthened by men’s greater access to the wealth escalator) are reconciled in ways that limit women’s access to and control over wealth.

Mariko Lin Chang is a former Associate Professor of Sociology at Harvard University. She currently works with universities to diversify their faculty and also works as an independent consultant specializing in data analysis of wealth inequality in the US. She is author of the book Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It.

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