The Effect of Spousal Overwork on Men’s and Women’s Employment in Dual-Earner Households

Long hours at the office may heighten gender inequality in the home. In a recent study published in the American Sociological Review, Cornell sociologist Youngjoo Cha finds that having a spouse who works more than 50 hours per week (or overworks) can negatively affect women’s careers.

Long work hours, which have become increasingly prevalent in the United States, are now an established workplace norm. Employees who work long hours are thought to demonstrate professional competence and work commitment. Although this standard seems to be fair for both men and women, it actually disadvantages many women, who have less time available to do paid labor because they are expected to do more housework and perform most of the caregiving responsibilities in the family.

Furthermore, long work hours introduce conflict between work and family into many dual-earner families, and couples often resolve this conflict in ways that prioritize husbands’ careers. Using data from the 1996 panel of the Survey of Income and Program Participation, a longitudinal household survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, this study demonstrates the negative impact that overwork has on wive's careers. Having a husband who works long hours significantly increases a woman’s likelihood of quitting, while having a wife who works long hours does not affect a man’s likelihood of quitting.

This gendered effect of spousal overwork is magnified among workers in professional and managerial occupations, where the norm of overwork and the culture of intensive parenting tend to be strongest. Male spousal overwork has the strongest negative effect on women who have children, which suggests that caregiving responsibilities is the key factor driving the gender difference. The prevalence of overwork may lead many dual-earner couples to return to a separate spheres arrangement, which consists of breadwinning men and homemaking women.