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A body of established research suggests that when two-earner couples move for job reasons, it’s usually for the sake of the husband’s career. It often hurts the wife’s work ambitions and her paycheck. And it typically strains the marriage.

Some academics suggest the “trailing spouse” phenomenon is based on traditionally-accepted gender roles, in which the husband’s career takes priority. Others conclude that that it happens for practical reasons that have to do with a man’s greater earning potential. It’s his job that will lead to greater gains in household income, so it’s his job that takes precedent, or that's the way the thinking goes.

Now comes research that takes a different angle.

The study, recently published in the journal Demography, does not dispute the tendency to move for a husband’s career.

Rather, the new study takes issue with the reasons behind the move. The big take-away: Women enter professions that make it easy to work anywhere, and move for any reason, including for a spouse. Men choose careers in fields that are geographically-constrained. In other words, men have to move in order to move up.

Alan Benson, the study’s author and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, analyzed Census data on jobs and gender. The following table captures his findings, which show that the more geographically “clustered” jobs are dominated by men, while jobs that are ubiquitous are dominated by women.

Benson teased out the share of people in each job that would need to move in order for that occupation to be evenly dispersed among every U.S. city. The jobs with one asterisk represent those that were majority female in 1980 and 2000, and those with two asterisks became majority female within 1980 through 2000.


“The tendency for men to move more often than women is completely explained by the types of jobs they enter, not that they are men or women,” Benson said in an interview. “Men who enter female-dominated jobs don’t tend to move as much for work. If you look at women who enter male-dominated jobs, they tend to move a lot.”

And if you look at women who are not married, they relocate for a job less often than men do.

All of this raises an intriguing question. Why do women gravitate toward certain jobs, while men don’t?

It may have to do with career and family expectations that form early in life. If everyone generally assumes families will put the husband’s career first, then maybe this compels women to choose certain types of jobs, which is disturbing.

“It suggests that occupational segregation is largely self-fulfilling,” Benson said.

This is happening even though women are more educated and more successful than ever before. For every two men who get a bachelor’s degree today, there are more than three women who get one.

(Not all degrees offer the same money-making potential, of course. But even those that do don’t necessarily lead to the same money for women. A different study that tracked the careers of MBA students who graduated between 1990 and 2006 found small differences in pay for male and female students after graduation. But there were large differences 10 to 16 years later, mostly due to career interruptions and fewer weekly work hours for women.)

Then there’s this twist, also from Benson’s research: Women who choose to enter into the geographically-clustered jobs dominated by men have a higher divorce rate than women in dispersed jobs.

That result (to be published in the journal Industrial Relations) -- together with his other research -- suggests that women who move for a spouse’s career and those who move to advance their own careers get penalized no matter what.