Who Makes More Money? Your Married Friends May Be Lying

illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Your married friends might be lying to you about who makes more money, at least according to new research from the US Census Bureau.
The recent study, first reported by Bloomberg, found that couples – regardless of income bracket, race and age – tend to lie about their earnings if the wife out-earns her husband. When their survey answers were compared to their income reported to the Internal Revenue Service, it was discovered that both husbands and wives were more likely to underreport the wife's earnings while overreporting the husband's. The reality of gender roles in heterosexual relationships may be shifting, but this study shows that the idea of men "bringing home the bacon" remains stubbornly stagnant.
While the individual explanations behind why heterosexual, married couples distort their earnings may ultimately vary, it's highly likely that some of the pressure is the perceived obligation to conform to more "traditional" gender roles. I surveyed a few married couples informally to see if they could shed some light on why they might misreport their earnings, and I found that many were aware of the societal expectations, but chose not to be influenced by them; however, this was not always the case. For some, they considered misrepresenting their earnings due to feeling like that was what was expected even if they didn't personally agree.
Anecdotally, an overwhelming number of responses contradicted the survey saying that they would happily say who made more in the relationship regardless of who it was. "I would be honest because making money isn't gender-based. We're a team," said one couple after 30 years of marriage. This sentiment of teamwork, celebrating each other's successes, and salary not being a defining characteristic of a person were echoed throughout many of our respondents, both male and female. "No one is the bread winner these days. Whoever has the potential should reach it," answered another.
Social pressures to conform can have unexpected outcomes on a person's behaviour. It's easy enough to be honest when it's a hypothetical scenario and not someone standing across from you asking in real time. Time and time again, we see people's unconscious bias inform their decisions. The truth is, women out-earn men in approximately one-third of heterosexual marriages, but 71% of Americans still believe that it is important for men to be the top earner in a relationship. Knowing that, it makes sense why couples might question how they should answer, especially if they don't want to be asked more questions.
The reality and ability for us to speak about that reality do not yet match up. Hopefully, as societal norms and expectations change, couples will feel more confident in taking pride in female breadwinners.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series