Bryan Caplan  

What Is the Female Marriage Penalty?

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Married women earn less than single women.  In the NLSY, married women make 10% less, even after controlling for education, experience, IQ, race, and number of children.  How is this possible?

As I explained in my post on the male marriage premium, there are three competing economic explanations, each of which may be partly true: Ability bias, human capital, and signaling.  What is the breakdown for the female marriage penalty?  My tentative opinion:

1. Ability bias goes in the "wrong" direction.  Married women are, on average, more conscientious, ambitious, and cooperative than single women - and were so long before their weddings.  And at least in the modern world, high income makes it easier for women to find a spouse.  Income matters less for women than it does for men in the modern mating market, but female income is usually still a plus.  And even if income has little direct effect on women's perceived desirability, higher income indirectly puts women into close contact with marriageable men.  Adjusting for ability bias, I think the true marriage penalty for women is roughly 20%. 

2. Human capital explains about 10 percentage points of the marriage penalty.  Even ignoring children, marriage causally reduces women's focus on their careers.  Once they're married, women want more work-life balance.  Some even reallocate their energy from promoting their own careers to promoting their husbands' careers.

3. Signaling explains the remaining 10 percentage points of the marriage penalty.  Several commentators pointed out the fact that it's illegal to ask job applicants about their marital status.  But people aren't legal robots.  Interviewers frequently ask illegal questions about applicants' personal lives, and applicants often volunteer their personal information just to make polite conversation.  When employers learn that a woman is married, they assume - correctly on average - that she will be slightly less focused on her job than an otherwise identical single woman.  No matter what the law says, employers have a strong temptation to factor this information into their hiring and promotion decisions.

In traditional societies, ability bias was probably close to zero: When almost everyone marries, there's little pre-existing difference between the conscientiousness, ambition, and cooperativeness of married and single women.  The human capital and signaling effects, in contrast, probably used to be much stronger.  Many women - including my maternal grandmother - simply quit their jobs right after they married.  Even married women who kept their jobs typically made homemaking their top priority.  As you'd expect, the employers of yesteryear responded with a strong presumption against married women.  Remember: Signaling is just a special case of statistical discrimination.

Final thought: If the marriage-class correlation continues to increase, future employers might actually start to see female marriage as a positive signal.  Ceteris paribus, marriage will still predict a stronger desire for work-life balance; but marriage will also predict all the professional class traits that Murray discusses in Coming Apart.

Is my breakdown for the female marriage penalty correct?  If not, what's the correct breakdown between ability bias, human capital, and signaling?  Please show your work.



COMMENTS (9 to date)
AMW writes:

Once they're married, women want more work-life balance. Some even reallocate their energy from promoting their own careers to promoting their husbands' careers.

Assuming roughly equal starting salaries, marrying may lower a woman's personal income by 20%, but as it raises her husband's personal income by more than 40%, her household income per capita has gone up by a healthy 10%. I wonder if some of the marriage bonus among the men is accounted for by the fact that they now have someone backing their careers. And if that is the case, women's marriage "penalty" is overstated. They've diversified their portfolio, but on the balance sheet it looks like a pay cut.

Joseph K writes:

I tend to think that the human capital explanation explains most of the female marriage penalty. For one women take time away from work to raise kids, and thus have less experience and work shorter hours. You might also mention that married women, since they don't have to earn as much money (because of their husband's income) are free to choose jobs that are more fulfilling but don't pay as well, not to mention the general idea that they might focus on the work-life balance, as you mentioned.

A lot of the problem, I think, with the discussion of male-female wage gap is that it is too focused on simple monetary compensation, as if all people care about is how much a job pays. A job that pays better isn't necessarily preferable, and a lot of the wage gap might simply be explained by the fact that when balancing all the advantages and disadvantages of prospective life choices, men rank salary as more important than women, married men rank salary more than single men, and married women less than single women.

Brit Benjamin writes:

"Married women are, on average, more conscientious, ambitious, and cooperative than single women - and were so long before their weddings."

Please share the citation for this.

adam zur writes:

a businessman would probably be afraid of having to pay her for several months off per year.

Jacob writes:

I've read that French companies are very keen to find out if young female applicants are married, or intend to get married soon, as they hate paying what I presume are generous mandatory maternity benefits.

Floccina writes:

They earn less but that ignores the production that they do for in family consumption.

Mike W. writes:

"Married women are, on average, more conscientious, ambitious, and cooperative than single women...".

So what is signaled to an employer if the woman's occupation is more high-status high-income than her husband's occupation? Seems to me that would cancel out the ability bias.

Methinks writes:

Once they're married, women want more work-life balance. Some even reallocate their energy from promoting their own careers to promoting their husbands' careers.

I assume that's because women begin thinking about starting a family upon getting married and that task sort of overwhelmingly falls to women.

What about women who seek to remain childless even after marriage? Do these women still look for more work-life balance? Compared to married, childless men?

John David Galt writes:

To the extent that men are more likely to support their wives economically than women their husbands, I would expect a woman, upon marrying, to be somewhat more willing to work for less than before (because she now has another source of income). I would expect the opposite effect on her husband (who has taken on a large new expense, or at least a potential one).

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