The wage disparity between men and women is an old story. According the most recent reports in the US, women earn 78 cents for every dollar made by a man. But, parallel to these statistics is the growing rate of women who earn more than their husbands. An NPR radio segment focusing on the issue last year cited that 38% of American women earned more than their husbands; however, that percentage decreases to 29% when women who were sole bread winners married to unemployed men were taken out of the equation. Although no statistics are available for Greek households, given the trend of higher rates of education for women and the fact of women inching farther into the corporate and professional nether sphere, I am willing to wager that Greek American families are part of the same story. But, yia stasou, think about that! Can you imagine what would happen if Baba earned less than Mama in the traditional Greek household? How does the reality of women’s growing earning power in second- or third-generation households affect traditional gender roles? Can the Greek male ego withstand the growing buying power of his wife? In this month’s issue, we interview a few Hellenic-American women and scour the research landscape in search of the answers.
If we look at some of the studies on the topic, the answer seems bleak. Increase mommy’s salary and you’ve destroyed the family. In 2013 the University of Chicago Booth School of Business published a paper that looked at 4,000 married couples in America. It found that once a woman started to earn more than her husband, divorce rates increased. Surprisingly, though, this data showed that whether the wife earns a little bit more or a lot more doesn’t actually make much of a difference. So the researchers concluded from that that what really matters is the mere fact of a woman earning more. The researchers tended to explain the data by saying that the wives tended to overdo housework to reassure their threatened husbands. That is, they were overcompensating as traditional housewives to keep their husband’s masculinity intact.
A different study from Cornell University found that a man is more likely to cheat on his partner if he is more financially dependent on her. And men who are completely dependent on their girlfriends or wives are five times more likely to cheat than men who earn the same amount as their partners. And the explanation given here was basically the same as the housework thing. So it’s basically about kind of men feeling like they need to conform to society’s definitions of masculinity.
This strain in traditional gender roles did not bode well for the wife either. It seems according to research from Washington University in St. Louis that studied data from 200,000 married couples in Denmark that when women were earning more than their husbands, they were more likely to use anti-anxiety medications and more likely to suffer from insomnia.
With the realities of the new economy and the downturn in traditional male industries with the onset of the global recession in 2008, more and more women are picking up the traditional bread-winner role that used to be the norm when you were growing up. But that doesn’t mean those gender roles die easily, either for the woman or the man of the house. What tends to be the case more than not is that traditional gender roles tend to clash with women’s changing role in the family. And subconscious or even conscious expectations of a good “Greek husband” or a good “Greek wife” are hard to kill, for both sexes.
Family social science researchers are finding that, although men with working wives are taking on more housework than ever before, they still lag behind by five hours a week! In families where there are children, the gap is even wider, with women spending 17 more hours per week doing childcare and home chores.
It is only when a woman’s paycheck approaches an equal dollar amount to her husband’s that the husband pitches in more. Curiously, some researchers have found that once a wife’s income is actually greater than her husband’s, he tends to be less and less involved at home and that couples are more likely to reassert traditional roles if the balance between earning power is tipped too much toward the woman. Perhaps women still need to think that they can rely on men to take care of them. Perhaps men need to feel that they are still the “head of household” to feel like a man. The issue merits further study.
Two professional Greek American women interviewed for this piece shed varying insights into the topic.
The first, a self-practicing attorney in Manhattan, who makes almost double of what her husband does, found the situation less than satisfying.
This is her testimony: “I do harbor resentment towards [my husband] and I wish he contributed economically as much as I did not necessarily more. I often feel like I am in a no win situation, ie. the more I do, the worse he feels about himself and if I do less, my family will suffer. I think it is important for an educated woman to be with an educated man because the increased earning potential leads to resentment on both sides. Not to mention the lack of connectivity intellectually and socially.
Socially it also presents the problem of no matter how accomplished you are as a woman the question everyone still asks is …what does your husband do? So you are not really respected unless your husband is educated and successful even if you are.
I still feel that the traditional Greek community does not respect women who are professionals as much as their male counterparts. As an attorney, I can tell you that I am constantly told by older Greek women how hard it must be to have a family and “work.” I have corrected many by saying that I have a profession not just a job. Then I am serendipitously treated to stories of how great their daughters who stay home are because they make koulourakia. (I make koulourakia too by the way.) Basically, many Greeks (especially the older generations) typically put a negative connotation on my professional accomplishments as if my son is slighted by the fact that I am a professional. I resent this connotation very much as I believe that my son is enriched by my education and professional accomplishments.
Another practical problem of course is that despite the fact that I am the primary care-taker of my son and my home, I cannot relate to many Greek women who are only homemakers and relate more to their husbands. This of course creates its own set of problems as it would be seen as provocative for me to socialize with the men at functions and not the women. It is also problematic because it hinders my networking efforts within my own community. But it is not all bad as it depends on who you associate with. There are many accomplished women of Greek descent in our community today and that means that traditional attitudes will eventually have to shift.”
The second woman, a recently promoted CCO of a major financial institution on Wall Street with two young children, has found that her earning power has planted the possibility for growth and new partnership with her traditional Greek husband. Although she earns five times more than her police lieutenant spouse, she finds that her white-collar/blue-collar marriage has benefited by the disparity. “We do two different things, so professionally we are not peers and do not compete in the same field even though we both work very hard,” she explains.
Her financial success is a product of four and a half long, grueling years of full-time work and part-time law school (from 6 am in the morning to 11 pm at night). Both partners view her success as tied to her partner’s acceptance and support, especially in the early years of their marriage. “Lets be honest, it takes a certain kind of man to accept the fact that his wife won’t be home to cook for him and won’t be home until 11 when he’s probably gone to sleep,” she points out. Christina feels part of a true partnership as a result and acknowledges her Greek American husband’s own sacrifices in accepting her own.
But that acceptance came with a lot of adjustments on both sides. The first adjustment must start with the professional woman herself in what she terms “having that discussion.” “As Greek American women we have to have that discussion of who has to take care of the baby, or buy groceries, or how are you going to help me,” she says. “We have to take the responsibility to shift that labor as the default programming for us is that the woman must be the primary child caretaker and the man the bread winner.” For an American couple, that “discussion” probably wouldn’t have to take place. It would be assumed that whoever saw there was no milk in the fridge would be the one whose job would be to get it. But for a woman and man socialized in Greek culture, because it is assumed that the woman picks up the largest share of child-rearing and house-minding, “you need to have that discussion.”
Certainly as an executive officer of a major financial firm, she will have to put more time in the office than before. An adjustment has to be made both for her and her husband. He has to be the one taking the children, one 3 ½ and the other 1, for check ups to the pediatrician. She cannot be the one fretting over the social engagements. She has to let go of her hold as the default child-minder just as her husband has to take on the reins. But some things, she admits, are still traditional. “I still try to cook,”she says, “but he cleans up.” After years of putting in long days, “you are forced to find that balance.”
Christina has personally experienced the “traditional talk” of Greek culture and spoke at length about the cultural straightjacket placed on Greek women. “No one asks me in Greece what I do. They ask what does your husband do. But you can’t blame them for their narrowmindedness,” she conjectures. “Your success as a woman will always be secondary in Greek culture.”
She echoes a sentiment similar to the previous attorney,” No one is really going to care if you are successful in Greek culture as a woman.”
Her choice to delay having children in her marriage for ten years became the focal point of any and all conversations she would have with extended family, at the expense of her career and professional pursuits.
“Our culture defines adulthood with family dependence,” she explains. “Greek culture is more social and less focused on the individual. It is not a tolerant culture. The majority of successful women and primary female breadwinners must be comfortable to break away from the culture of conformity. Basically at 18 or 19 most of us have made decisions about our life and career based on what our parents have told us we should do. We follow the pattern: our culture tells us what to do and then you fit into the mold.”
She vividly remembers having a conversation over dinner with some friends several years ago. The question “What would you have done differently in your life?” went around the table. A good male friend openly confessed, “I would have picked a more simple-minded woman. Life would have been easier.” “I was shocked,” she exclaims, “but I understood.”
“Greek males grow up having their ego stoked and they go into marriage thinking they should get the same or more attention. A professional, educated woman is challenging for them because they will have to defend their opinions. They will not garner the attention they are used to getting. It is actually more challenging for a Greek man to partner with a woman on equal footing as he is not used to this.”
This professional woman also attested to the traditional gender pressure put on by her own mother. Even when she has put in 13 hour days, she gets the guilt trip “magirepses?” “did you cook?” via Mom. She does not take these comments to heart. Even her husband sees how ridiculous that sort of default thinking is.
She also attributes the success of her marriage even with the strains that a hyper-elevated income on the woman’s part might bring to it on her and her husband’s choice of shared values. The key she shares is defining “What do you value?” Ultimately it is the values that bind the marriage and keep the family together, despite the changes in roles and change in income.
While she personally knows several Greek-American couples who have divorced probably due to the unequal income distribution, she is confident that ultimately her own marriage will thrive.
But ingrained gender roles, the ones we subconsciously and consciously took in as children raised in an old-fashioned Greek home, are tricky to counter. Do you find yourself less attracted to your husband if he doesn’t bring home the bacon as he is supposed to? Can it be that too powerful or strong a woman might psychologically emasculate a man to the point that she rejects him? Could that be the reason your husband is so reluctant to sweep and mop? (As a side note, psychologists have labeled the reluctance of men to take on more traditional housewife roles as the Hercules complex as they, like Hercules who had to don women’s clothes to gain entry into the Amazon tribe, have to protect their masculinity. Hercules ultimately disrobed Hippolyta and had sex with her as a real man to be successful in his quest for her girdle.) Are you on purpose not seeking a higher-paying job just so that you don’t threaten your Greek husband? Or are you thinking about divorcing a lesser-paying spouse because he is not on your level?
We will need more interviews and surveys to find out.