Breadwinning women are up to three times more likely to get cheated on by their husbands.
A 2015 analysis of heterosexual marriages found that men who are economically dependent on their female spouses had a roughly 15% chance of engaging in infidelity, compared to a 5% chance of dependent female spouses doing the same.
This is just one example of a larger phenomenon I call the ‘ambition penalty’: the sum of the social, personal, professional and financial costs women face for their ambitions.
We’ve spent a lot of time covering these costs professionally and financially, most notably in instances of negotiation, where studies consistently find that women who negotiate are more likely to be labeled aggressive and demanding, less likely than their male counterparts to actually get the raises and promotions they’ve requested, and are often penalized for even asking.
But this backlash is not just limited to the workplace.
The costs women face for their ambitions also extend to their personal lives.
For example, a 2019 study found that male stress levels rise if a female partner earns more than 40 percent of the household income.
According to the study’s lead, men interpret a partner’s success as their own failure, and this bruised ego effect has a lasting, negative impact on the relationship.
In addition to the greater likelihood of infidelity and relationship stress when women in heterosexual marriages become breadwinners, researchers find that promotions to top jobs dramatically increase a woman’s probability of divorce – a pattern that does not hold true for men.
Even outside the context of income and career, researchers find that men are more likely to interpret a partner’s success as their own failure.
In a series of studies published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology®, men felt bad when their wives beat them at something, but they also subconsciously lost confidence when their wives got any wins – even when they were not in direct competition with their partners.
Across all kinds of achievements – personal, social and intellectual – men subconsciously felt worse about themselves when their partner succeeded compared to when she failed.
And when their female partners succeeded at something they failed at, men’s implicit self-esteem took an even bigger hit, which diminished their relationship satisfaction.
Conversely, the women in these experiments reported feeling better about their relationships when they thought about a time their partner succeeded rather than failed.
The data is clear, for ambitious women, personal success means a higher likelihood of relationship stress.
And in the context of a culture that consistently values women as wives and mothers above nearly all else, the ambition penalties women face are exacerbated. Their successes not only threaten their spousal relationships, but the way in which they’re most valued by the world around them.
As one of the studies concludes, “norms and behavior in the marriage market hinder the closure of the gender gap in the labor market”.
In other words, the personal backlash women in heterosexual marriages experience in response to their successes can not only undermine their own ambitions, it can also reinforce the persistent gaps in power, representation and economic equity more broadly.
In fact, research that suggests that women change their behaviors when interactions involve men to avoid some of these social penalties. Findings that ask us to reconsider the assumptions described in headlines like ‘Women don’t pursue high paying jobs’. ‘Women drop out of the workforce’. ‘Women let their partners manage their money’.
If we consider all the ways in which women’s ambitions are penalized, we might start to understand how much of what we’ve traditionally called the ‘confidence gap’ or ‘engagement gap’, as an adaptive response women have consciously or subconsciously adapted to avoid the social penalties of their own success.
So instead of asking what women can do differently, we can start asking what needs to happen for more women across race, class and gender identity to feel entitled to and supported in pursuit of their ambitions – at home as much as anywhere else.
Because as long as we live a world in which women’s ambition and achievement carries steep social and personal penalties, it’s likely these gender gaps will persist.