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The Cost of Being a Successful Woman: New Research from Sweden

I am the dominant earner in my household. My wonderful life partner/spouse of 25 years is a talented artist. I am a successful consultant, and consultants generally make more than artists in our society. My life partner and I have always been fine with our financial relationship, but I remember when his father was still alive and would yell into the phone from the background, “Tell that bum to get a job!” He could not stand it that I made more money than his son. This lack of moral support was very painful for us both, especially for my partner. We were trying to stay grounded in the choices that made sense for us in the face of societal attitudes about acceptable gender roles — and this was sometimes difficult.

Joan C. Williams, writing for the Harvard Business Review about why white working-class men and women voted for Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election, describes the strong feelings about traditional gender roles that still exist in segments of our society. She explains, “Trump promises a world free of political correctness and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place.” She goes on to explain that manly dignity is a big deal for most working-class men. So is breadwinner status: Many still measure masculinity by the size of a paycheck,” and the paychecks of working-class men have been decreasing since the 1970s. During this same time period in the United States, women, especially educated women, have gained greater access to opportunities, increasing the resentment of working-class men and women.

While the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump reflects, at least in part, that traditional attitudes about gender roles are still deeply embedded in large segments of society in the United States, a recent study finds that, surprisingly, these attitudes also still exist in Sweden.

Why is this a surprise? Ray Fisman, writing for Slate.com, explains that while Sweden is known to be a progressive country with legal protections for women, generous family leave, and free day care for all, societal gender norms still play a big role.

Fisman cites research by Olle Folke and Johanna Rickne showing that female career success is harmful to marriages in Sweden. They followed the marriages of aspiring female politicians and found that while winners’ and losers’ divorce rates are identical before an election, the divorce rate for winners doubles relative to that of losers right after an election. They find a similar impact from becoming a female CEO in Sweden. Fisman notes, “The authors argue that the women’s sudden success puts extra strain on marriages in which men are accustomed to playing a more dominant role in the workforce.” According to the researchers, the effect is larger when “the promotion results in the woman becoming the household’s dominant earner.”

The costs of these attitudes about successful women are high. Neither the United States nor Sweden has ever had a female head of state — at least in part a reflection of discomfort with ambitious women. Other costs include

  • women having to work twice as hard to be considered for promotions
  • women receiving harsher performance feedback often with a focus on personal characteristics rather than results
  • higher divorce rates

I agree with Fisman’s closing statement: “We still have a long way to go.”

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at annelitwin.com on January 30, 2017.

Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together', OD Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Workshop Trainer

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