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Husbands’ careers still trump wives’ as dual-degree couples ponder job relocation


Findings are bad news for women battling gender wage gap

Single men and women with college degrees are generally more likely to move to a big city to pursue job opportunities. Whether a married woman makes this potentially career-enhancing relocation depends largely on if her husband holds a college degree, suggests a study by economists at Washington University in St. Louis. "We are becoming more used to the idea of husbands as trailing spouses from newspaper and magazine articles. We all know couples who have moved for the wife’s career," says Janice Compton, co-author of the study and a doctoral candidate in economics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University. "But our data show that migration is still overwhelmingly affected by the husband’s and not the wife’s education. That is, if he has a college degree they are more likely to move, and to move to the big city, regardless of her education."

The study, presented by Compton at the Jan. 7 Econometric Society meetings in Philadelphia, Pa., is co-authored by Robert A. Pollak, Ph.D., the Hernreich Distinguished Professor of Economics in Arts & Sciences and the Olin School of Business at Washington University. The findings offer less than encouraging news for the growing ranks of young professional women, at least in terms of pay equity. If a woman’s educational level still has little or no influence on a couple’s decision to relocate for career advancement, as this study suggests, then women can expect to see ongoing disparities in professional salaries. "The continued presence of trailing wives means that we should continue to see a wage gap between married women and married men, even among those with college degrees," Compton concludes. Using recently released data from the 2000 U.S. Census and the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics, the Washington University researchers tracked the job movements of thousands of young people over several decades, including detailed breakdowns by marital status.

The study identifies couples as "power" if both spouses have a college degree; as "part power" if only one spouse has a degree; and as "low power" if neither spouse has a degree. Other findings from the Washington University study include:

  • Migration patterns of power couples are indistinguishable from couples where only the husband has a degree, while migration patterns of couples where only the wife has a degree are indistinguishable from those of low-power couples.
  • Single college-educated men who move to a big city are less likely to get married, but those who do marry are more likely to marry a woman with an equal or greater education level, thus creating a power couple.
  • Divorce rates increase for low-power couples as they move from small to medium to large cities, whereas the opposite is true for power couples; divorce rates are lowest for power couples living in big cities, and highest for those living in small towns.
  • Power couples are more likely to migrate to large metro areas and less likely to leave, but no more so than part-power couples or power singles of either sex, suggesting that changes in power couple concentration patterns are not being produced by migration.

The power couple puzzle

For much of the last three decades, demographers have observed steady growth of households in which both spouses have college degrees, noting with interest that these so-called power couples were becoming increasingly concentrated in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

Between 1970 and 1990 alone, the percentage of power couples living in the nation’s 25 largest cities increased from 39 percent to 50 percent. With more college-educated women entering the workforce, many expected this trend to continue.

In fact, the trend may have begun to reverse itself. Using data from the 2000 Census, Compton and Pollak found that the proportion of power couples residing in large metro areas actually dropped slightly between 1990 and 2000. The explanation for the changing concentration of power couples in large cities is elusive.

One theory suggests that power couples are relocating to the nation’s largest metro areas as a response to "co-location" pressure, a mutual desire to find one labor market large enough and diverse enough to satisfy the career aspirations of both spouses.

Re-examining this theory in the light of other data, Compton and Pollak found no evidence that the concentration of power couples in big cities could be directly attributed to the pressures of co-location.

Rather, their findings suggest that many big-city power couples are essentially homegrown — that all college-educated individuals (married and unmarried) are attracted to the amenities and high returns on education found in large cities.

Thus, rather than a result of migration, the concentration of power couples in large cities reflects two phenomenon: the formation of power couples either through the marriage of educated singles or through additional education of part-power couples. Both phenomenon are more likely to occur in larger rather than smaller metropolitan areas.

"This reversal of the earlier trend is difficult to explain in terms of co-location pressures but is easy to explain in terms of changes in marriage and educational attainment patterns observed in the data," Pollak says.

Gerry Everding | EurekAlert!
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