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Income disparity raises gender role questions

Kay Hegarty has always made more money than her husband, John, has.

When the Shueyville couple first entered the work force she as a certified public accountant and he as a high school science teacher the difference in their incomes wasn’t substantial.

Over the years, though, she’s made partner and enjoyed the raises that came with promotions along the way. The state hasn’t been as generous to its teachers.

In 26 years of marriage, their financial situation has been a topic of conversation on only a few occasions, always because someone else brought it up.

“Others have mentioned it to us as if we should be uncomfortable,” said Kay Hegarty, 49.

“They weren’t being critical. They weren’t intending to be offensive and rude. It makes me pause only because it doesn’t occur to me. It’s almost like they pointed out to me that the sky has clouds today,” Hegarty said.

More than 30 years after women entered the workplace en masse, they’re now out-enrolling men in colleges and sometimes out-earning their husbands in a fourth of American households in which both spouses work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Society still casts men as breadwinners and women in supporting roles, though.

“It’s definitely part of a traditional script of relationships that we are taught as a culture,” said Melody Graham, a psychology professor at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids. “Traditionally, we’ve had men earning more money than women. It’s the other way that we don’t seem to be OK with.”

Consider that six of nine women contacted for this story declined to be interviewed because they didn’t want to embarrass their husbands.

Most often men and women will say they want an equal relationship, “but when you look at behaviors, it doesn’t pan out that way,” said Mary Noonan, an associate sociology professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in work, family and gender. “It could be that they don’t really want to deep down inside.”

This societal contradiction is something sociologists are just beginning to study, said Noonan, 37, of Iowa City.

John Hegarty has never seen the point of envying or being embarrassed by his wife’s successes.

“She earned it, but we were both reaping the benefits of it,” said Hegarty, 49. “It doesn’t bother me at all. Whereas I think it would hurt a lot of men’s egos to say they’re not the primary breadwinner.”

Many factors seem to influence whether a couple will struggle with the role reversal. Income level, the disparity between each spouse’s wages, vocation, status and children all come into play.

Research indicates that resentment emerges most often in lower-income families.

“I hear (low-income women’s) frustration with men they don’t feel are working hard enough … to get a better job,” said Mount Mercy’s Graham, 46, of Cedar Rapids.

Studies also have shown that men who make less than their wives in non-professional careers are less likely to share household duties.

“He does less housework, because he already feels like he’s not being a real man,” Noonan said. “It’s so emasculating that they’re not going to help out more at home.”

On the other hand, couples are more apt to see the role reversal favorably if the husband makes less because he’s pursuing a profession for which he’s passionate or particularly talented.

That holds true for John and Amber O’Connor of Cedar Rapids.

Early in their 11-year relationship, John O’Connor, 33, planned to be a doctor. Between college and medical school, though, he realized that he was meant to teach.

“Right there, we took a big nose-dive as far as income,” said Amber O’Connor, 32, a marketing director at Erb’s, a technology reseller in Cedar Rapids.

The couple decided his earning potential wasn’t worth sacrificing his love for working with kids. So, for nearly two years, she was the sole breadwinner while he went back to school.

“It didn’t bother me in the sense that she made more money. It bothered me that I wasn’t able to bring home more,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t able to contribute as much, in terms of doing my half, my part.”

Since John O’Connor started teaching high school science seven years ago, his wife has at times made more than him. At others, he has. It’s never mattered, though.

“Everything goes into one pot. We don’t worry about who brings in more here or more there,” John O’Connor said. “Every decision is always based on what would be best for the family.”

Researchers wonder whether the male breadwinner stereotype will slowly erode with each generation. Amber O’Connor, for example, was raised by a single-working mother. As a result, she never planned to marry someone who would support her.

“I always wanted to work,” she said. “I think I’m happiest when I bring some money to the table.”

–Associated Press

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