Why Talking To Your Partner About Finances Is So Important

Money can be a touchy subject in any relationship, but who makes more shouldn’t necessarily determine who bears the brunt of the work at home. Lisa Levey discusses salaries, work choices, gender roles, and shared responsibilities.

Money is one of those short list items that can make or break a relationship, along with such issues as fidelity and the distribution of household chores. Financial management is one of the most important issues that couples will need to tackle in their lives together, but too often it is given short shrift. Money becomes a central issue when couples begin to meld their finances and jointly manage living expenses. The involvement of children elevates the money conversation to a whole new stratosphere. It is also when the pull to devolve into highly gendered roles rears its ugly head.

Couples have so much to gain by speaking early, and often, about the role of money because it so powerfully influences central decisions that they make about their lives, not the least of which is how they divide up the pie of responsibility after they have children. Young women and men overwhelmingly state their ideal as sharing equally in the care of family matters yet many discover this ideal is not realized once they become parents. Young couples find themselves completely caught off guard by what can seem like an invisible force driving them toward highly traditional roles that seemed out of the question just a few years earlier when they were two professionals sharing their lives together.

There is no doubt that women’s economic contribution to household income has grown through the last several decades and that their growing economic clout is impacting the roles that women and men play at home. But another less discussed piece of the story is that those men in higher prestige, more lucrative jobs are also more likely—than their less accomplished counterparts—to revert to more highly gendered roles after children. As a consultant to large multi-national corporations on women’s leadership issues, I was continually struck by the stark differences in the family profiles of professional women and men raising children in these organizations. While nearly all the women were in dual-career households, the majority of men with children under 13 had a stay-at-home wife to manage child care and home responsibilities. 

Several pieces of research underscore how the higher salaries and education levels of men go hand in hand with more gendered roles. A December 2010 New York Times article, “M.B.A.’s Have Biggest ‘Mommy Penalty,’ Doctors the Smallest” highlighted a study of the career trajectories of female MBAs from a top business school. The researchers found that women MBAs with richer husbands reduced their labor force participation, while women MBAs with lower income husbands did not. Sociologist Pam Stone in her book Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home reported that the long hours and inflexibility of their husbands’ jobs was a key factor in the decision of many of the women she interviewed to stop working outside the home. As long ago as the fall of 2000, I spotted an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “The New Economy Family” with the headline, “For a growing number of affluent families, Dad now earns so much that it doesn’t pay for Mom to work.” The women highlighted in the article found it a very challenging journey moving from being a professional peer with their husbands to assuming a traditional gender role that did not comfortably fit their self-identities.

It is well documented that after the birth of a child, men work more hours than before, while women work less. Furthermore, fathers work longer hours than their male colleagues without children, yet this pattern does not hold for mothers. Yet few highly educated professional women and men seem to understand the attendant costs in gender equality—for them as a couple and for women and men more broadly—that accompany high octane jobs characterized by long hours, constant accessibility, few limits, and outsized rewards.    

Despite the full-scale entry of women into the workforce over the last several decades, many families continue to favor the “primary career” model. The dominant thinking is someone—usually the woman—needs to be the flexible one, able to manage the unpredictable needs of the children, while the other partner—typically the man—becomes more career focused than before. In some cases, the woman stops working altogether, but far more frequently she continues to work outside the home—in the secondary career—yet also assumes the lion’s share of child care and family management. From there the resentment builds with the woman feeling that it is unfair she is playing the lead role at home while simultaneously managing her professional career. Furthermore, her male colleagues at work seem to have so many fewer limits on their time than she does. A conversation with any group of professional women about work and life management soon sparks discussion of these inequities. The feelings run deep. 

The problem with the primary career mindset is that it perpetuates the notion of jobs with no boundaries, removed from the reality of people’s lives for whom caretaking is a central role. This mindset does nothing to evolve our work cultures. As importantly, individuals working in these primary jobs understandably feel little ability to push back at work and potentially impact the main perceived source of family income. In contrast to the primary career model, research on dual career couples—with both individuals more likely to identify their and their partner’s careers as equally important—underscores their ability to architect a more flexible, far less gendered work and life solution. Women and men in dual career situations feel greater freedom to experiment and make changes as needed. They highly value their ability to customize the pace of their careers and continually reevaluate their decisions and priorities. Dual-career professionals feel more able to evolve their work situations to better fit within the context of their whole lives.

Highly successful and educated young women and men don’t seem to understand how the mindset of the primary job—typically accompanied by few limits and very generous salaries—leads to a growing discrepancy in income within couples once they become parents, and constitutes a powerful mechanism perpetuating gender inequality in our workplaces and in our homes. Interestingly, during the heyday of the woman’s movement in the 1970s, there was more sharing in home and family management among professionals than those in blue collar jobs, while present day, white collar couples share less.  

I believe couples who proactively talk about money—and more deeply understand the links between money, work choices, and gender roles—are far more empowered to realize the egalitarian ideal that they desire. As important, they are far less likely to be totally caught off guard, resentments riding high, and wondering what went so wrong.  

Lisa D‘Annolfo Levey is a consultant, speaker and writer on women’s advancement, work-life, and diversity issues. She spent many years as a Senior Director in Advisory Services at Catalyst and as a consultant with Rodgers & Associates, the consulting arm of Work/Family Directions. She is the author of The Libra Solution: Shedding Excess and Redefining Success at Work and at Home focused on 21st century work-life solutions. You can read more about her work and the book at www.TheLibraSolution.com.

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