Wives' Impact On Men's Careers Depends On Attitudes, Finances

November 03, 1998

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The impact wives have on their husbands' career choices depends not just on financial considerations, but also on the attitudes of both spouses, new research suggests.

The study involved 1,368 couples and looked at the husband's choice of whether to stay in the military or find a civilian job.

Results showed that the husband's satisfaction with the family's work-life situation mattered more in making the career decision than did the wife's satisfaction. Women who were committed to working had more influence on their husbands' career choices than those who called themselves homemakers, the study found. And men who held traditional gender role beliefs were less likely to consider the economic consequences of their prospective career choice on their wives.

"We found that a man's career choice was not based solely on maximizing the family's income," said Donald Haurin, co-author of the study and professor of economics at Ohio State University. "His own attitudes and those of his wife had an influence."

Haurin conducted the study with H. Leroy Gill of the Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton, OH. Their results were published in a recent issue of the journal Social Science Research.

The researchers studied men who had been in the military at least one year but no more than eight years and who had civilian wives. The goal was to find men who were familiar with the military life but had not yet committed to a full career there.

Military couples made good subjects for this study because they know in advance that if they choose a military career they will be required to move often, Haurin said. The frequent moves almost invariably hurt wives' career opportunities and limit their potential income over time.

So the husbands have to consider whether a career in the military will be worth the harm it does to their wives' career ambitions and potentially to their family income, he said.

The researchers examined military couples who participated in the 1992 Department of Defense Surveys of Military Officers and their Spouses. This survey examined various attitudes and beliefs of military men and their wives. It also specifically asked if the men planned a career in the military, which allowed the researchers to consider how financial considerations and attitudes may have played a role in the decision.

The study looked at how much the men would earn if they chose a career in the military compared to their potential earnings in a civilian job. Potential civilian earnings of military men were computed by looking at the wages of civilian men with similar backgrounds, including age, education and training. This data came from the 1985 National Longitudinal Surveys. The study also calculated how much the men's wives would earn if the men were in a military job compared with a civilian job.

The study found that the average husband would earn $43,109 a year (in 1992 dollars) if he had a military career and then received a military pension, compared to $31,058 if he left the military and pursued a civilian career. However, the average wife in the sample would earn $3,541 a year less if her husband had a military career instead of a civilian one.

The results showed that income considerations -- both the husband's and the wife's -- were very important in the military vs. civilian career choice. For example, the researchers found that if there is a potential financial advantage to a man for remaining in the military, this raises the probability of a military career by 30 percent.

If a wife will be financially penalized if her husband stays in the military, this reduces his likelihood of staying in the military by 17 percent. "This shows that if a woman's earning potential is not hurt by a military career, then her husband is more likely to make the choice to stay in the military," Haurin said.

But attitudes are important, too, such as satisfaction with the military lifestyle. "We found that both the husband's and wife's satisfaction levels were important in the career choice, but that the husband's satisfaction level carried more weight," he said. Only about 16 percent of the men who said they were "very dissatisfied" with military life planned for a military career. However, 40 percent of the wives who were very dissatisfied had husbands who planned for a military career.

The wives' attachment to her career was also a factor. The researchers found that men whose wives described themselves in the survey as homemakers were 7 percent more likely to choose a military career than men whose wives were not homemakers.

"Women who describe themselves as homemakers are probably less interested in building and maintaining a career," Haurin said. "This means their husbands may feel free to choose a military career because it doesn't harm their wives' career."

The study also examined how men's gender-role views shaped their career decision. One question in the survey asked men how much influence their wives had on their decision to stay in the military. Those who said their wife had no influence were considered to have "traditional" gender role beliefs. These traditional men were 18 percent more likely to choose a military career than were men who said their wife had a great deal of influence on their military career, holding constant other influential factors.

"For traditional men, the career decision is dominated by their thoughts on the implications for their own earnings," Haurin said. "In contrast, non-traditional men value the implications for themselves and their wives more equally."

Haurin said the results should be applicable not only to military couples, but any couple that is contemplating how to juggle dual careers. "Our findings show why employers must consider the consequences of career change and relocation for both their employer and spouse," he said. "Couples look at the family's financial outcomes when one individual is considering a career decision."

For the military, the results suggest that if leaders want to increase retention in their ranks, they should reconsider the high frequency of moving personnel on a scheduled basis, according to Haurin.
Written by: Jeff Grabmeier

Ohio State University

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