As an obstetrician, Roma Vora earns over $300,000, roughly $235,000 more than her husband makes as an emergency room nurse working at the same hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. She is one of the roughly 30% of wives who outearn their working husbands in the US, a growing and sizable minority of married households.
Vora, 33, and husband Zach Knicky met about five years ago, when a woman delivered a baby in the ER lobby. At the time, she earned about $55,000 as a resident, roughly $10,000 less than Knicky was making as a full-time staffer, a gap that would reverse dramatically once she completed residency. “When you meet someone, and you’re falling in love with them, and you’re in your 20s — I wasn’t really thinking about what that difference would be like in years to come,” she said.
Their income gap has widened as their relationship deepened. “It’s definitely had ups and downs,” Vora said. In 2020, while they were dating, she bought a house and Knicky moved in. “There was a period where I felt I was providing so much, and I didn't have that sense of 100% security that we were in this for the long term,” she said. That didn’t arrive until they were engaged in 2021 and married the next year. Vora pays for their living expenses (as well as splurges, like upgraded flights), and they split most of the house chores like dishes and laundry. Knicky does all the cooking.
“There are times where I feel a burden of having to work hard all the time to keep up with this lifestyle,” she said. “I get to do something I love, something I’m proud of, and I get to contribute to a lifestyle. But the negative is I don’t feel like I could ever stop that unless I was with a partner that had equal or more income.”
Among married couples in which both spouses work, the share of women who earned more than their husbands reached a record high of 30.6% in 2021, according to Census data provided to BuzzFeed News. That’s up from 23.3% in 2000 and 15.9% in 1981. Black women are more likely than other women to be the primary or sole earner in their marriages, a new analysis by Pew Research Center found. College-educated women and women with no children are also more likely to be higher earners than their husbands.
Before she went on maternity leave in January, Vora got one day off each week from seeing patients, but could still be called in for emergencies or delivery anytime. Knicky’s job was demanding too: He had long, tiring shifts, including through the peak of the pandemic, that typically totaled 36 hours per week. Vora worried what would happen if she suddenly could no longer work. “I’m keeping my eyesight healthy and my hands healthy, because I need those [for surgery]. I ensure I’m keeping myself healthy to continue to work a lot,” she said.
“From a male perspective, it’s very easy to feel guilty, or feel down, or that you’re less than yourself if your spouse makes more than you.”
Despite the pressures Vora faced to work and to earn, there were gendered microaggressions at the hospital — when they worked with a patient together, some assumed she was the nurse and Knicky was the physician. In January, when they had their first baby, people asked, “‘How are you going to work and be able to care for your kid?’” she said. “No one’s ever asked him that.”
Vora’s mother stayed at home when she was growing up; her father provided the income. She is not looking to replicate their arrangement, though she now wants the option to cut back, particularly if she has more children. Yet the current income gap between her and her husband means it’s not feasible.
“I don’t want her to have so much of the financial burden,” Knicky, 27, said. Earlier this year, he quit his job to start a three-year program to be a nurse anesthetist, a profession that pays more and will help “make her life easier, and in turn, make our kid’s life easier,” he said. “You don’t hear men talking about their wives earning more” — he suspects they’re reluctant to compare themselves to other men. “From a male perspective, it’s very easy to feel guilty, or feel down, or that you’re less than yourself if your spouse makes more than you. That’s how society portrays it: that you're not good enough,” Knicky said. But “life’s not all about money. … There are always things that you can do to gain personal worth and gain value in your house. You can be a great father. You can be a great husband. It doesn't all have to do with dollar signs.”
Still, unburdening Vora means narrowing that gap, and in the meantime, she will shoulder 100% of the family’s financial needs while he is in school. She sees it as an investment that will improve her life in the future. “I don’t ever want to feel resentful in any way,” she said. It’s sad that many people still treat working women as “a bonus” to household finances when it often isn’t the case, Vora said. “I am proud of myself. And I want women to do everything they want to do. But if you are in a relationship or marriage where you are the sole breadwinner, it comes with a lot of pressure.”
Many meaningful shifts have taken place since the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 first protected a woman’s right to open her own bank accounts. Four decades after women began earning more bachelor’s degrees each year than men, the majority of the college-educated workforce is now female, according to Pew. Women still earn less than men on average, but those under 30 now earn as much or more than their male counterparts in 22 of 250 US metro areas, including New York, DC, and Los Angeles. And single women are buying more homes than single men in the US. Yet even as women take on greater financial responsibilities, certain inequalities persist: the higher rate of labor force participation by men and the gender wage gap (women overall still earn 83% of what men earn). Higher-earning wives are also blanketed by stigma — research shows the divorce rate is significantly higher and husbands are more likely to cheat when wives earn more.
BuzzFeed News asked women who make more than their husbands to share what it is like as gender roles at work and at home evolve: how they split their finances, their values about money, what’s working, and what isn’t. More than 1,000 people responded. Many of the women I spoke with asked not to be identified by their full names, or not to be named at all, due to worries they would upset their spouses or harm their reputations, noting the lingering stigma against men who earn less than their wives.
“The amount of ego-stroking and making myself smaller I’ve had to do so a boyfriend doesn’t get depressed or resentful or just mean about the fact that I earn more is stomach churning.”
“I think this is more commonplace than people want to admit — all of my girlfriends outearn their husbands,” said an attorney in DC who makes about $130,000 more than her husband, who is also an attorney. (She asked not to be named to protect their privacy and professional profiles.) “For a lot of people, I know that not bringing shame to men is kind of a pillar of patriarchy. Women who are not resistant to that think, ‘Oh, I would never shame or embarrass my husband; I would never be open about this.’”
“It makes a lot of people really uncomfortable on both gender sides,” said 39-year-old Lauren Richardson, who earns $56,000 as a financial adviser assistant in Houston, about $22,000 more than her partner. Richardson said she also outearned her ex, with whom she has a child, and he treated it like “an assault on his masculinity.” She said he would try to repair his ego by buying electronics and going on guys’ trips that she’d foot the bill for because he felt “it was my fault that his masculinity was in question to begin with.” “The amount of ego-stroking and making myself smaller I’ve had to do so a boyfriend doesn’t get depressed or resentful or just mean about the fact that I earn more is stomach churning,” Richardson said. She is relieved her current partner “is wildly different.”
Kelly Scott, a therapist with Tribeca Therapy in New York, said she sees “tons” of hetero couples in which women are higher earners. If income disparity creates tensions in a relationship, “both people are contributing to the dynamic,” Scott said. “A woman might be reenacting something or re-creating a familiar dynamic in a way that she’s not aware of, and so is her partner,” particularly since “in American culture, Western culture, there is a very clearly defined masculine role, particularly in a straight relationship.” In Pew’s survey from this past January, women and men both said American society values men’s contributions at work more than at home. Financial topics have the potential to be very loaded because money ties in so closely with power, Scott said. “The goal is to get them out into the open, to put them on the table as a topic that can be discussed, that can be acknowledged by each partner themselves, but also acknowledged in the context of the relationship in a way that is safe, contained, and productive.”
Bailey Wallace, a 31-year-old mother, earns $65,000 per year as an enterprise risk manager in St. Louis, almost twice what her husband makes working at a local bike shop. “I don’t think it’s talked about enough,” she said. Growing up, Wallace’s mother was the main earner; her father had health complications. Whether they support their household by staying at home or by getting a job, “women’s work is not acknowledged,” Wallace said. “It's always just assumed that the husband is the one who is earning more. It’s unspoken.” Her husband would rather stay home with their 1-year-old son and maintain the house than work full-time, so she hopes to eventually earn enough that he can cut his hours. Wallace said breaking down gender stereotypes means society must accept that more and more women are financially supporting their husbands and families. “You should do what you want as long as you’re not hurting anybody, and me making more money isn’t hurting anybody,” she said.
Tara, who founded and owns her own business and asked to only be identified by her first name, earns more than $1 million a year, about 20 times what her husband makes as a physical therapist. “I drive a nice car. People assume my husband bought it for me,” said Tara, 40. “I’ve had men on LinkedIn say, ‘Good for you, being able to start a business because you have a rich husband.’ … There’s definitely an assumption by society that financial success is driven by men, and if a woman shows signs of financial success, it’s because a man is providing for her.” The couple recently married and are in the process of combining accounts. “You don’t have to be 50/50 partners financially to be good partners in a relationship,” she said.
Tara was raised to prioritize money and careers, and not to depend on anyone else financially. Yet she found her income caused problems in most of her past relationships. “Most men can’t seem to handle being outearned by a woman,” she said. The reality is that her job simply pays a lot — most weeks, her husband works more hours than she does, “he just gets paid like shit.” Ultimately, she sees their income gap as arbitrary. “It’s bullshit that it’s so easy to make so much money in my job. He works really hard and helps people,” Tara said.
“Most men can’t seem to handle being outearned by a woman.”
One woman, who asked to use the pseudonym Lily, said her colleagues are mostly male and “don’t understand” that her husband hasn’t worked since he was laid off five years ago. His friends tease him for being a househusband. “If my husband sees this article and he sees his name in it, he will flip his shit,” she told me.
Lily, 39, said it was clear when she and her husband started dating that she had greater earning potential than him. She said she “was raised to be more driven,” and that his parents “coddled him” because of a health condition he had growing up. Before they became parents, their income gap wasn’t a big concern. But one of their children has a medical condition that requires supervision, so Lily worked part-time for a few years to care for them. “One year, he made $2,500 more than me, and he would not let me forget it. Every time we’d talk he’d be like, ‘I’m the breadwinner now,’” which she attributed to him being “a very traditional Chinese male.” In 2018, he was laid off, which allowed him to care for their child and pushed Lily to focus more on work. “It opened up a ton of doors,” she said. She has been the sole income earner since, and now makes more than $300,000 a year. She also remains the primary household manager — an outcome that is not unique for women earners.
Research shows that when American wives earn more than their husbands, they often end up taking on an even greater share of housework. One study showed that “the more economically dependent that men are on their wives, the less housework they do.” Pew’s analysis found that when wives are the primary earners, husbands’ leisure time increased significantly compared to those whose earnings were about equal, while the time they spent on caregiving and housework stayed about the same. Joanna Syrda, a professor at the University of Bath, stated in a report that when parents find themselves in this income dynamic, traditional gender norms are so entrenched that they might try to compensate for this “abnormal” situation by leaning into conventional gender norms at home (this was less of a pattern in couples without children).
Lily still does all of the cooking, including for their child who needs to be on a blender diet. She makes sure the kids do their homework. She pays bills, saves and invests for themselves and the kids, and makes sure there is always enough in the checking account. “I will try to say, ‘Look, this is our budget: This is how much goes out. This is how much comes in. This is how much we have.’ He's not interested,” she said. Her husband, now in his 40s, does his own laundry, but not hers or the kids’. He does the dishes but won’t do other chores. “It’s fascinating to me because these are highly educated men. He can do this,” she said. She feels male earners generally enjoy more balance at home. “As a woman, you don't get that option. You still have to do it all,” she said.
“I’m really tired,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like, Am I alone? Is this my fault? Am I doing something wrong?” Overall, things at home are working, and while she wants more support, “I think you get to an age, and a point in your marriage where you’re just like, I tried.” She feels, on occasion, that what he needs is a mother. “Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Am I raising three children?’”
She feels male earners generally enjoy more balance at home. “As a woman, you don’t get that option. You still have to do it all,” she said.
Some women said they maintained an arrangement where each spouse had their own money, either to retain a sense of independence and minimize conflict over spending, or because they didn’t trust their husbands to be responsible if all their money was pooled. One 31-year-old consultant in LA earns $225,000 including bonus, about $190,000 more than her domestic partner. She pays about 80% of their expenses, but they have a domestic partnership agreement that requires their finances to be separate. “I’m probably afraid of being made a fool of,” she said. “I’m a Black woman, and he is a white man. I couldn’t stomach the possibility of having to pay a white man spousal support — even the one who I plan to love for the rest of my life.” Like Tara, she said her partner works full-time and “he’s doing a really good job,” but freelance video editing just doesn’t earn as much as her job does. She asked not to be named in this piece in order to protect her partner, who is concerned about being negatively judged in the workplace.
In Orlando, Jenn, 34, earns about $97,000 per year as a business analyst, about double her husband’s income as a pharmacy operations manager. (She asked to only be identified by her first name to protect her privacy because she doesn’t want to receive comments online.) Jenn and her husband both have ADHD. “When he’s hyper-focused on something like a new video game, he can blow $200 without thinking about it, and I usually don’t find out until the end of the month when he doesn’t have the money I was expecting him to have,” she said. “So, no, I don't trust him, but he also knows that — and he doesn’t trust himself.” They agreed that all of their wedding gifts and other checks would go to her account. Twice each month, he sends her his share for monthly bills, and Jenn pays them; if he has overspent, she covers the bills until his next paycheck. “It would get really frustrating waiting for his money to come in so I could make my account whole after rent emptied it out.” she said. Still, even if he was more reliable with money, she said she’d want separate accounts so they could each make independent decisions. “I make more, so I want to be able to spend on things and not have him watching.”
Jenn’s husband Mike, 36, said their arrangement is “great.” While he comes up short some months, he loves his job and has worked with his employer for 18 years. “I’m probably not going to try to leave it too soon,” he said. “I don’t want to start over somewhere else from the bottom.” The pay for his position caps out at about $30 per hour in his area, but he and Jenn feel fine about it. “So as long as we’re comfortable, we’re OK,” he said.
Jeannie Hernandez, age 56, earns about $106,000 as a training and development manager in Dallas, Texas. She has earned more than her husband for about 12 years, currently by about $68,000. There are social misconceptions that men who earn less than their wives are lazy, she said, “especially a Hispanic man” but “that’s far from what my husband is.” “The world is changing and so are family dynamics, and that’s OK,” she said. But Hernandez said she struggles with inequality around handling finances. She manages the bills down to the penny; he doesn’t know how much any of the bills are or when they are due. “I take anxiety medicine, because it has taken a toll on me mentally,” she said. Hernandez started keeping a record of monthly bill payments in a notebook in case her husband has to take care of them in her absence. “He knows I have it, but he doesn’t look at it,” she said.
Her husband’s mother handled the family’s finances when he was growing up, and became the sole earner after his father had a stroke. “I’m feeling the stress that [his mother] had to carry,” Hernandez said. She suspects she inadvertently put herself in this position, because her own mother didn’t know anything about the household’s finances when she became a widow. “It fueled me to take on a mentality of being independent and responsible,” she said.
“I take anxiety medicine, because it has taken a toll on me mentally,”
Hernandez didn’t finish college, but her husband did. She became the financial backbone of the family in 2012, when her husband was laid off from his job of about 30 years. He found another job with lower pay, but grew resentful. “I’m the one with the degree, and you’re the one that makes more money. That used to be a heated debate,” she said. Hernandez agreed he was under-compensated for his experience, but “he didn’t really do what I thought he should do: try and get more money by applying to the next level up.” This year, he was laid off again.
Still, her husband does most of the cooking and all of the grocery shopping. He puts gas in the car. When their daughter was younger, he got her ready in the mornings and did her hair. And, Hernandez said, he gave her his blessing to share her story. ●