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By Susan White

A researcher at Memorial’s business faculty has discovered that women who have higher status jobs than their spouses need their partners to pitch in at home in order to sustain successful relationships.

Dr. Alyson Byrne, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the Faculty of Business Administration, recently published a study in Organization Science that looked at women in high status (not necessarily equated with high-paid) positions whose husbands or heterosexual partners have lower status jobs.

The study looked at how that dichotomy affects marital stability as well as the factors that help mitigate instability.

“Primarily we wanted to understand how women felt about their spouses’ job status and, if they were married to someone or in a partnership with somebody who had lower status positions than themselves, how do they feel about that?” said Dr. Byrne.

“What we found was that if women saw their job status was higher than that of their husbands, they were more likely to experience wives’ status leakage, meaning they felt their spouses’ position detracted from the status they had worked hard to achieve.”

Impact on reputation

The concept of status leakage comes from organizational science and examines the impact on a firm’s reputation when a higher-status organization partners with a lower-status one.

The lower status firm typically benefits by way of a reputation boost, whereas the partnership may be detrimental to the reputation of the higher status firm.

The same is happening in marriages and common law relationships, Dr. Byrne says, making women more likely to think about or consider separation or divorce.

“We were a little surprised, but emotional support didn’t make a significant difference in the model.” — Dr. Alyson Byrne

The good news, however, is that it can be prevented.

“We wanted this to not be a doom-and-gloom study, so we also measured how wives perceived the support they received from their husbands, both emotional support and instrumental support,” she said.

“We were a little surprised, but emotional support didn’t make a significant difference in the model. However, when wives perceived their husbands to be providing them with instrumental support, then the relationship wasn’t negatively affected. They didn’t feel any marital instability.”

Instrumental support has buffering effect

Dr. Byrne describes emotional support as a “cheerleader” role, while instrumental support involves child care, elder care or domestic responsibilities.

“It’s more than just ‘I’ll do the laundry.’ It’s sending a signal that ‘I really value your career, so I’ll pick up the slack at home.'” — Dr. Alyson Byrne

“When husbands provide domestic support, really allowing their wives to be successful at their careers and spend the extra hours if they need to, even if the wives felt like, ‘I really wish his job was a bit higher status,’ the marriage was really good,” she said. “That instrumental support buffered and mitigated the negative consequences of marital instability.

“It’s more than just ‘I’ll do the laundry,’” Dr. Byrne continued. “It’s sending a signal that ‘I really value your career so I’ll pick up the slack at home.’ We think there’s a real connotation of respect when a husband chooses to support his higher status wife.”

Dr. Byrne suspects emotional support isn’t as big a factor in marriage stability because women don’t rely on their partners for it. She says women tend to find their emotional support in a whole host of places: friends, peers, family members.

“They get their emotional support elsewhere, whereas husbands primarily get their emotional support from their wives.”

Agency and autonomy

The study’s results may offer a brighter view of women’s ability to take ownership of their own lives, says Dr. Byrne, and that divorce isn’t necessarily negative if it’s something that a person feels is going to make them more satisfied, more successful and happier.

“There’s choice now and I don’t think we talk enough about that and we don’t frame it positively enough.” — Dr. Alyson Byrne

“Could it be that women now have this agency and autonomy where they’re saying, ‘You know what? I’m here, I’ve made it, I’m doing amazing and I don’t feel that you are meeting my potential so maybe I can do something about it?’ There’s choice now and I don’t think we talk enough about that and we don’t frame it positively enough.”

Still a stigma

Dr. Byrne plans to conduct further study on status leakage within relationships across different socio-economic classes.

It’s research that can go a long way towards equality between the sexes, both at home and in the workplace. She says stigma still exists when men try and take a more active support role in the home.

“You may offer flex policies or family-friendly policies, but there’s a bit of a stigma when men take parental leave and support their wives in their careers,” she said.

“I think we really need to start moving away from that if we’re serious about getting men and women on a more even playing field and women in more senior leadership positions.”

Dr. Byrne’s study, “When she brings home the job status: Wives’ job status, status leakage and marital instability,” was published in the April 2017 issue of Organization Science. It is co-written with Dr. Julian Barling of the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.

Dr. Byrne received her PhD in organizational behaviour from Queen’s in 2013. She worked at the University of Manitoba and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in leadership at the Ivey Business School at Western University before joining Memorial in 2015.


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