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Study: A top promotion can double a woman’s chance of divorce

A woman’s professional success may come at the cost of her marriage, according to a new study. Swedish researchers Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne found that when women got promoted to the top job in their field, it doubled their chances of a divorce. The same was not true for men being promoted.

Married women twice as likely to get divorced within 3 years of promotion

In their 2018 white paper, Folke and Rickne looked at 30 years of Swedish register data that followed the careers of job candidates before and after job promotions in the public and private sector. On average, the employees being studied were 50 years old and were people who had been married for about 20 years. When women are asked to balance the scales of work and family, romantic partnerships can be the casualties of career success.

The researchers found that women in politics were seven percentage points less likely to stay married to their spouse if they got elected, compared to women who ran for office and lost. This finding meant that married women doubled their baseline probability of getting a divorce within three years after a job promotion. Meanwhile, men’s divorce rates were not impacted by whether or not they won an election.

This finding held true for women working in private firms of more than 100 employees too. The researchers found that married women who got promoted to CEO were twice as likely to get divorced within three years of the promotion compared to their male counterparts.

Relationships suffered if husband’s career was the priority early on

What’s causing the romantic strife? The researchers ruled out economic independence as a factor, finding that wives were financially secure before they got the promotion. They had the money to divorce comfortably if they had wanted to do so.

But the researchers did find that how couples started their relationship set the tone for the rest of it. For couples that prioritized the husband’s career in the early stages of their relationship, the married woman’s promotion was more likely to destabilize the marriage and result in a divorce.

The researchers determined “gender traditional” relationships by looking at how much parental leave was taken only by the wife. If she took 80% of the leave available to both parents in Sweden, she was in a gender-traditional relationship. In general, gender-traditional relationships were ones that had husbands who earned more, did less childcare work, and were older than their spouse.

Meanwhile, couples who equally focused on each other’s careers at the early stages of a relationship were not affected by the increase in divorce rates when a wife got a job promotion.

Women face more stress “when trying to obtain a highly demanding top job”

The researchers had three theories for why women taking the driver’s seat in a relationship steered the end of a marriage:

  1. The wife’s promotion could be more unexpected in a couple that prioritizes the husband’s career
  2. The wife’s promotion causes more stress from task renegotiations in these unequal relationships
  3. Women leave relationships that offer the least flexibility and support for her career development

This research suggests that women in traditional, heterosexual marriages can have a loving marriage or a successful career, but they will have more trouble accessing both at the same time than their male brethren. For that to change, labor and marriage markets need to stop sending the message that men’s careers should come first.

“As long as there is little specialization in the opposite direction — households in which the wife is the dominant earner and the husband takes primary responsibility for childcare — the average woman will face greater stress in her family life when trying to obtain a highly demanding top job,” Folke and Rickne concluded.

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