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manning up and womaning down

A recent New York Times article, When Wives Earn More Than Husbands, Neither Partner Likes to Admit, reported on a study conducted by the Census Bureau that compared what respondents said about their earnings versus what their employers told the Internal Revenue Service in tax filings.

The key takeaway?

When women earn more than their husbands, both the husbands and the wives seem uncomfortable – to the point of lying about it. Specifically, in opposite-sex marriages in which women earned more, women said, on average, that they earned 1.5 percentage points less than they actually did. And their husbands said they earned 2.9 percentage points more than they did.

The researchers who conducted this study, Marta Murray-Close and Misty L. Heggeness, concluded that people thought it was more socially desirable for men to earn more — so whether fudging the numbers was a conscious or unconscious choice, these social norms affected their answers. They called it “manning up and womaning down.”

As a researcher, there are a couple of implications that come to mind when reading about this finding:

1. Stating the obvious. The minority of women making more than their husbands (about a quarter of couples) are still uncomfortable about this and feel the need to “woman down.”  This is consistent with a Pew Research Center study from last year where 71% of people say that to be a good husband, men should be able to financially support a family; only one-third said that about women. Even in 2018, we still see that these social norms are slow to change.

2. Directly related to the work we do. If people were deceiving the Census Bureau, then how concerned should we be in the market research industry? Well, as any good researcher, it’s important to know the method the Census Bureau used for its study. Turns out they used a questionnaire administered by field representatives across the country, through both in-person and telephone interviews. What does this tell us?

  • Historically, we know that bias comes into play when an interviewer is involved. Knowing this, I was relieved to see that the survey was interviewer-administered and not self-administered.  It was likely social desirability that led respondents to say that the wife earned less than the husband.
  • Since most of the market research industry relies on online self-administered interviews these days, maybe we are less likely to witness the “manning up and womaning down” syndrome.

Overall, this is good news for our industry, but it’s a good reminder that even today social norms still have a ways to go – hopefully one day we won’t need to talk about manning up and womaning down!

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