What Same-Sex Couples Can Teach Heteros

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The news certainly seemed disheartening for any woman hoping to have an egalitarian partnership. According to Harvard Business School, which recently released the results of a survey that examined the career paths of 25,000 alumni, the women grads expected that their marriages would be egalitarian. But the men? They seem to have known all along that they would put their careers before their wife’s, and the kids would her responsibility.

Some, like Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post, suggest the men are just being pragmatic:”They spent two years studying how to develop successful careers and businesses, which includes understanding both how real-world companies work and what kind of team (at work, and at home) one needs to thrive financially.”

OK, I can understand that (sort of). But some of those Harvard MBAs surely must be in same-sex partnerships. How do they manage?Better it seems, according to Deborah A. Widiss, associate law professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. It’s just that we heteros apparently are stuck in a gendered past, sadly.

“It never ceases to amaze me how many people will say to us, ‘So, who’s the woman and who’s the man in your marriage?’” Widiss quotes a gay man in her paper, “Changing the Marriage Equation.”

It’s an odd question to ask a couple but a telling one. It means that even today, when couples marry with the desire to have an equal partnership, we still think of marriage in terms of a woman’s role and a man’s role — that’s why we tend to have “his” and “her” marriages. And for the most part, we not only think that way but act that way, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many articles about working women complaining that their husbands don’t do their part around the house or with the kids. Nor would it be assumed that wives should take the day off work to stay home with a sick child.

These are not conversations often heard in same-sex households, Widiss suggests. Same-sex couples, especially lesbians, typically do have more equitable partnerships when it comes to household and parenting responsibilities, making them role models for equality-seeking hetero couples.

If gays and lesbians can do that, why can’t heteros?

“More than 30 years after explicit sex-based classifications in family, employment, and benefits law were held to violate the Constitution or statutory prohibitions on discrimination, the vast majority of different-sex couples still divide responsibilities along gendered lines,” she notes. Clearly, we’re unable to mentally free ourselves from the “Mad Men” model of marriage — she cleans, cooks and caretakes, he brings home the paycheck — even if we are physically doing the opposite.

But we’re also dealing with laws that still encourage specialization within marriage into breadwinning and caregiving roles, she says. And, because of that, it could be that same-sex couples may decide to specialize along traditional gender lines when more states allow them to marry. Then we’d all be in the same mess together.

But maybe not, since the majority of same-sex couples tying the knot are women.

Widiss spoke with me about the findings:

A: Families need someone to take care of children and housework. These days, about 70 percent of married women work outside the home. But studies consistently find that wives still spend much more time than their husbands doing domestic work, while men spend more time at paid jobs. If the marriage ends, judges have to decide how much that domestic work “counts” when dividing up property or determining whether to award alimony. Although in most states, caregiving is a factor that judges are instructed to consider, judges often characterize dropping out of the labor force or opting for a job with fewer hours as an individual “choice.” Judges don’t pay enough attention to the ways in which marriage law still encourages one spouse to take on primary breadwinning responsibility and the other spouse to take on caretaking responsibilities.

A: At one time, husbands were legally responsible to provide economically for their wives, and wives were legally responsible to provide domestic services to their husbands. Now, even though the law no longer specifies which spouse should stay home, it still rewards married couples who specialize into different roles. For example, under federal tax law, a married couple pays less in total taxes if one spouse works outside the house and the other spouse stays home. They get a “marriage bonus” relative to the amount of taxes they would pay if they were single. By contrast, if each spouse earns about the same amount, they often pay a “marriage penalty” relative to the amount they would pay if they were single. As same-sex couples marry — and especially if the law changes so that their marriages are recognized under federal law — I think you might see them begin to specialize more. I don’t know whether they will. I’m hoping researchers will study that question in the future.

A: I’m not necessarily advocating changing marriage law. I’m just suggesting that we should be more honest about the extent to which law still tends to encourage role division. If we as a society really want men and women to share responsibilities equally, then yes, it might make sense to think about reducing the extent to which marriage laws incentivize specialization. It would be equally important to think about how we could change employment laws and workplace norms so that it would be easier for men and women who want to balance work and family responsibilities to do so.

A: Divorce law could be changed to provide better protection for women (or men) who stay home or work fewer hours to take care of domestic responsibilities. In 2002, the American Law Institute, an influential group of lawyers, judges, and law professors, recommended that divorce law be changed to compensate caregivers for a “loss in earning capacity.” There are other ways that property distribution or alimony could be restructured so that men and women’s standard of living after divorce would be more equal. The key is recognizing that there is a disconnect in a legal structure that encourages specialization during marriage but then, upon divorce, often treats such specialization as simply an individual “choice” made by the caretaking spouse.

A: It’s not just marriage that encourages specialization. Gender norms do, too. So even without marriage, women living with male partners may feel pressure to conform to expectations — either internal or external — that they take on a greater share of household work.

A: It’s important to consider the pressures men feel to conform with gender roles. In fact, new studies show men feel increasing levels of stress as they try to balance home and work responsibilities. And men legitimately worry that they may be penalized at work if they ask to take a paternity leave or for other flexibility to meet children’s needs. But women may feel more slighted by gender roles because “women’s work” is not as respected as “men’s work.” Our society tends to assume that there’s no great skill involved in taking care of a baby or cleaning a house. People who do caretaking work for pay (not coincidently, an almost entirely female workforce) are usually paid poorly.

Originally published at omgchronicles.vickilarson.com.

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Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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