Are Mormon marriages more equal or less equal than other marriages? Do Mormon women feel that they are taken seriously and treated as equals by their husbands? Are they encouraged to follow their dreams? Do they find their work (whether at home or in the workplace) meaningful and rewarding? In the give and take of marriage, are men and women giving and taking fairly?
I recently finished reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. In the book, she talks about several things we can do to help women achieve their potential and to help men and women feel more equal and personally satisfied, within their personal lives and in the workplace. This list includes things like:
- As women “lean in” more at work, men must also learn to “lean in” more at home. (This was very similar to what I heard Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, say in a Women’s Conference, that women are leaving vacant spaces as they join the workforce, and those vacant spaces must be filled.)
- Sheryl Sandberg advocates more modern marriages in which partners work together rather than relying on assumptions and outdated norms that limit marital communication. Studies shared in the book illustrate that men in “traditional” marriages are “nice guy misogynists” in the workplace. They view women as positive (using words like nurturing, moral, and ethical), but they also view women as disruptive to the workplace and not suited to its rigors. (This reminded me of a comment one of the elders made in my mission; fortunately, he was an outlier). Men who hold these views perpetuate policies that discourage women from participating. They are also at greater risk for being fired if they exhibit discriminatory behaviors and attitudes, which puts their financially dependent wives at risk.
- Women are unlikely to succeed in the workplace if they are not encouraged or supported. This can also apply to finishing one’s education. Sheryl made the analogy of a marathon in which the crowd is shouting to the men, “You can do it! You’re almost there! Keep going!” but to the women, the crowd is shouting, “You don’t have anything to prove! You don’t need to finish! Aren’t you tired? Nobody will think less of you if you give up now!”
- She also talked about the value of choice and that parents of either sex who choose to stay at home with children are doing valuable work and also deserve support. Of course, that doesn’t mean that a working spouse should be exempt from responsibilities in the home. The home is the responsibility of both parents as partners. They should decide jointly how to meet those obligations.
- Women and men both need to push for policies that enable work-life balance for both men and women. E. Cook said the same in his conference talk. When workplaces stigmatize balance or value face time in the office over results, it hurts everyone.
- Because she advocates for more women to lean in (to the workplace), she also suggests couples should consider the cost of child care as an investment in future earning potential, similar to paying for college; as she points out (and backs with statistics), women can never make up for the years of experience lost after college, even if they have pedigreed degrees, which then leads to less challenging work in lower paying jobs; that disadvantage makes it easier for women to quit.
In light of the book’s suggestions, I became curious about Mormon marriages. What are the dynamics within actual Mormon marriages, not the ideals so frequently touted? Do our marriages follow the norms of society in general or are they different? Are we women encouraged to follow our dreams? Are we women given support and partnership to do so? What are the limits of that support? Do both partners communicate well or rely on assumptions or gender stereotypes to divide labor? I decided to conduct a brief survey to find out how married Mormon women viewed these factors within their marriages. There were a total of 135 responses.
Let’s start with a few demographics. Of the women I polled:
- 48% are stay-at-home mothers; 4% of all the women polled have husbands who are stay-at-home dads. These numbers are fairly consistent with current national averages.
- A total of 52% of the women do some sort of paid work.
- 31% of those work part time, as a supplement to family income.
- 69% of women do paid work full time.
- A total of 12% of women work from home.
- 24% of women are the primary earner, the exact same percentage as the national average.
- 17% of women are “high earners,” making greater than 1.5 times what their spouses earn.
Next, I asked these women a series of yes / no questions about their marriage. The questions are subjective about the quality and nature of communication, division of labor, child care, and job or work satisfaction for both spouses. Because these statements are subjective, a few caveats are important. Words like “fair” and equal” are not defined for respondents, so this is based on their perception of what is fair given their own specific set of circumstances. For example, “fair” certainly doesn’t have to be a 50/50 split. If one spouse works full time outside the home, the other one may carry more workload within the home, particularly during the working hours. Each couple has to make these decisions within their own partnership. The questions I asked related to how these women felt, and in some cases, how they felt about their husband’s situation. Their husbands’ answers may have differed.
First, let’s see how women viewed the equality in their marriages. 94% of women agreed with the statement: “My husband sees me as an equal partner.” This percentage holds true across all sub-categories: SAHMs, women working part-time, women working full-time (slightly wavering to 91% for “high earners”, bot not a statistically significant difference). Similarly, between 90-91% of women agreed that “We make all important decisions together.” The only group with a significantly lower agreement with this statement (only 80% agreed) was women working full-time who are not primary earners. Are women taking a hit for spending time outside the home that doesn’t contribute on par financially? Is this a double whammy of the wage gap (pay women less, and then treat them less equally at home also)? Or is it indicative of women valuing different things in the workplace, deliberately choosing more satisfying work over lucrative work, but men disagreeing with these choices?
Next, I asked a series of questions about the types of encouragement women feel they get from their spouses. Women in general (85%) agreed that “My husband appreciates my ambition.” This agreement ran along economic lines, though, with only 78% of SAHMs but 91% of high earners agreeing with the statement. If ambition pays, women feel more encouraged to be ambitious. However, breaking into that earning potential can feel insurmountable for some SAHMs, only 68% of whom said “My husband would adjust his schedule to give me more career opportunity.” Interestingly, the highest percentage of respondents to that question were among low-earning full-time women at 90%. Unsurprisingly, only 43% of SAHMs said “My husband would relocate for my career,” although 72% of working women agreed with the statement. Even among high earners, agreement to this statement spiked at 83%.
SAHMs had the highest perception of their marital communication, followed closely by full-time secondary earners (90%); 91% of them stated that “My husband and I talk openly about out daily frustrations; we support each other.” The lowest reporting group for marital communication was in the primary earner (76%) and high earner category (78%). Perhaps husbands and wives whose days differ more greatly feel more inclined to discuss their day. Interestingly, this communication doesn’t seem to result in feelings of empathy. Only 71% of SAHMs claimed “I understand what my husband’s day is like” compared to all other categories that were in the 80-85% range. The lowest scoring statement of the entire survey shows women don’t feel understood, perhaps due to self-reporting. Only 46% of SAHMs believed that “My husband understands what my day is like.” This statement didn’t divide neatly along working/not working lines as only 45% of secondary earning full-time workers stated that their husbands understood what their day was like. The highest group was part-time workers, 64% of whom believed their husbands understood their day.
A similar percentage of women in all categories agreed with the statement “My husband and I decide how to share responsibility regardless of gender norms,” with the lowest groups being SAHMs (78%), primary earners (79%) and high earners (78%). The highest reporting group was full-time secondary earners (85%), followed by part-timers (82%). These results were similar to answers to the statement “My husband and I share child care responsibilities fairly,” but with SAHMs rating it higher (82%) than women who were primary earners (79%) or high earners (78%). Some comments indicated that women who were high earners felt they did not pull their equal share in child care or domestic chores, so that could explain some of the low results in this group. Again, the full-time secondary earners felt most in accord with the statement (85% agreed).
The biggest bone of contention centered around division of domestic labor. Only 49% of SAHMs agreed that “My husband and I share household chores fairly.” This rose to 70% for high earning wives, but was low across all other working categories (59% for all working women): part-time workers (55%), full-time secondary earners (60%), and even primary earners (61%). Perhaps the higher results among high earning women was due to not considering the state of the house as part of their success, high travel schedules, enough money to pay for domestic labor, or some high earning wives that have non-working spouses.
Quality of Work Life
Lastly, I asked women to report on the quality of their own work life and their husband’s as they perceive it. Interestingly, in nearly every category, women reported higher levels of satisfaction and sense of reward than they attributed to their husbands. One notable exception was that 82% of SAHMs felt that “The work my husband does is challenging and a good use of his talents,” although only 68% of SAHMs agreed that “The work my husband does is often rewarding.” SAHMs overall painted the rosiest picture of their husband’s work life, either because their husbands truly are more successful and happy at work, or because of lack of understanding between spouses doing very dissimilar work, or because the model depends on a belief in the husband’s satisfaction with it. Or are men simply rewarded more than women in the workplace because the workplace was designed by men, for men, and men are taught from birth that it’s where their reward is to be found?
I couldn’t help but think of the Upton Sinclair quote: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Contrast these results with how SAHMs reported feeling about their own work. Only 37% of them agreed that “The work I do challenges me and is a good use of my talents,” and only 46% of them felt that “The work I do is often rewarding.” That’s a lot of self-reported personal sacrifice; if their husbands are also not loving their jobs, is it really worth it?
Among all working women, evaluation of the husband’s job satisfaction was much lower. Only 59% agreed that “The work my husband does is challenging and a good use of his talents.” This was the highest for part-time workers (64%), but the lowest for secondary earner full-time workers (50%). Results for “The work my husband does is often rewarding” were low across every category of working woman (46% overall). The lowest group, again, were the secondary-earner full-time workers (40% agreement), and the highest group were the part-time workers (50%). Is this indicative that these women are working at least partly because they are not in the position of entitlement that the SAHMs are in, relying on husbands who are satisfied and rewarded well in their jobs? Or does it simply illustrate that working women have a more realistic perception of their husbands’ job satisfaction?
Turning to how working women view their own job satisfaction, these results were higher, but none were near the rosy view SAHMs portrayed of their husbands’ satisfaction. 67% of working women said “The work I do challenges me and is a good use of my talents.” This was highest for high earners (70%) by a long shot. The lowest agreement was among part-time workers (55%). Interestingly, only 64% of women stated that “The work I do is often rewarding,” and this was actually lowest for primary earners (58%). 65% of secondary earners agreed with the statement and 64% of part-timers did. Perhaps this indicates that some women are deliberately choosing less challenging or lucrative careers that they feel have intrinsic rewards that merit them working. Or perhaps expectations are simply lower among these workers than among the higher-paid women, which would follow the percentages of female workers in their category.
These results surprised me in a few ways. The biggest surprise was that the percentages followed U.S. national averages. Despite the church’s advocacy for traditional marriage and women staying home, in reality, we seem to be both in and of the world. The factors driving these trends are stronger than rhetoric; this also probably means that for believing members it just amps up the guilt factor. A few other observations I had about this data:
- Most women are OK with how child care is divided, regardless of their working status. Because I didn’t ask men this question, I wonder if they would be equally satisfied or would like to spend more time with their children.
- All women are dissatisfied with how domestic chores are shared. The answer seems fairly straightforward: men need to lean in a bit more when it comes to routine chores like house cleaning, laundry, shopping, cooking, and doing the dishes. These chores are not viewed as fun, challenging or rewarding by anyone, so it’s not fair that one sex bears the burden disproportionately. Again, open discussion about division of labor is the best course, not assuming who is responsible to do what.
- What exactly does the data about quality of work life mean? I can think of several possible interpretations, and perhaps all of them hold some piece of the puzzle:
- Do men in traditional marriages have a happier work life or do their wives just believe they do? Is it happier because of the support of a non-working spouse or is the non-working spouse a privilege of the husband’s career success?
- Are working women able to see through the myth of the happy worker or are their husbands actually less happy in their work life? Is that because their wives are working and in some cases out-earning them, or are their wives working because their husbands’ careers haven’t been as rewarding and a second income is needed?
What conclusions do you draw from this data? What new questions does it raise about Mormon marriages? What other surveys would you like to see? How does your marriage compare to these results? Do these results imply that traditional marriages have key advantages over modern marriages or that those stereotypes have harmful, unintended consequences?