Financial Equality vs. Career Equality

“woman holding white mug while standing” by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

If you were to look at my social security report and compare it to my husband’s, his would be far ahead of mine. I’ve taken time out more often that he has and even when we’ve both been working, my pay was almost always less than his. And up until about 5 years ago, my career played second fiddle to his. If he got a job opportunity, it would be me who’d follow and figure things out. I’ve done it twice in our nearly 30 years together.

I’d like to say there was some big conversation we had that decided that this was the way things were going to be, but a lot of it was just circumstance. As a professor, my husband had to take jobs wherever they were. I once aspired to be a professor but my field had fewer openings than his and I decided pretty quickly that I didn’t want to keep chasing those minimal openings and so settled down to pursue a different path. His field, even if I’d stayed in higher education, would have paid more than mine, not because he’s a guy but because it’s in more demand and so the market pays more.

Despite the circumstances that place my husband’s career ahead of mine, both financially and practically, I never felt that it couldn’t have been the other way around. There have been moments when I was making more than him and there have been moments when I wanted to switch gears that he’s said he’d follow me somewhere if that’s what I wanted. And now, though he still makes more than me, it’s not significantly more, and he’s shifting to a more flexible career, one that would allow me to make the next big move if I wanted.

I was prompted to think about all of this after listening to this podcast about women who make more than their husbands or who are the sole breadwinner in the family. There were lots of interesting tidbits in there about how couples approach having the wife have a big career, especially when there are small children involved. Women have difficulty as much as men do when they bear most of the financial responsibility within the household. They struggle to let go of childcare or household responsibilities, which makes them take less time for themselves. They also sometimes perceive their husband less favorably because he’s not living up to the social norm that says that men are supposed to be the primary breadwinners.

Toward the end of the podcast, the three hosts discuss what they enjoy about having a career and being the primary breadwinner. They all mentioned financial freedom. None of them feel dependent on anyone to take care of them. I have to say that that’s something I’ve always thought about, regardless of whether my career was playing a secondary role or not. I always knew I could support myself if I wanted to or needed to. I think I’ve always felt financially equal to my husband if only because I always knew I had the potential to earn just as much or more than him. Family dynamics and choices I made led me to make less for a while, but my career potential has always been equal.

If I were to advise young women on this, I would say fight for career equality in your relationship and financial equality may come with that. It will help give you future financial freedom if you need it. Figure out together how to manage the outside of work work, and that may mean lowering your standards for how clean the house is or how fancy your evening meals are. Having a career and a family is hard, but both have been rewarding to me. There’s no perfect answer here. There’s just figuring it out as you go.