She has a great job. He has a pretty good job. Let's say they both get unrefusable offers that would involve moving cross-country. Which one will sacrifice salary, status and career ambitions to pack up and start over?
Chances are it will be the woman, says a Connecticut geographer who has finished several studies showing a link between migration and gender roles. Thomas Cooke, a human geographer at the University of Connecticut, calls it the "trailing wife" phenomenon. "Even when wives have higher status jobs, the direction of migration is to help the husbands," he said.
Cooke believes the phenomenon offers another explanation--besides the glass ceiling, the old boys' network or division of labor at home--for why so many women have not progressed further in their careers. It's still unclear, he said, whether husbands are offered more opportunities, or whether women are choosing domesticity over career, and, if so, what influences their choices.
In any case, it's important for any career-minded person to move from place to place to get an education, a first job or career advancements, Cooke said. In the U.S., 4% of all married couples move to a new city each year, he said.
Cooke's analysis of census data from 60,000 families in the U.S. and 100,000 from Great Britain showed that among couples who moved long distances, women experienced a 10% decline in full-time employment and another 10% drop in any employment at all over a one- to five-year period. In a separate study, Cooke compared childless wives with those who had a child within a year of the move and found that children almost always ensured a continuation of the "trailing wife" effect.
Unsurprised, some feminists say his studies are just one more sign that despite four decades of social change, the women's movement still has work to do.
In her new book, "Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World" (Doubleday), Peggy Orenstein notes that nearly half of all married women with school-age children provide at least half of the household income, but women's salaries overall are still 74% that of men's.
Although women have earned prominent positions in business, law and academia, she said their salaries remain disproportionately low.
A large part of the explanation lies, she believes, within women's psyches. A survey of female college seniors found that 70% believed the careers of their future husbands would take precedence over theirs.
Despite optimism over career opportunities, some young women can't escape traditional notions of the "perfect wife" or "good mother," while others don't really want men to fully participate in family life, she said. In a world where women still don't have equal power, she said, "there's power in being the center of the family--even if it comes with resentment."
Cooke said both men and women are realizing that there's just not enough time to have a rewarding, prestigious job, two or three children, a good marriage and a wonderful family life.
"At some point, people say, 'To hell with it. I can't do everything.' " Then, he said, they simply fall back on roles in which they feel most comfortable.
In many cases, he said, women had already chosen careers that led to their roles as trailing spouses. In a typical scenario, Cooke said, the moving couple involves a mid-level manager husband and a nurse or teacher wife. When the husband is offered a promotion that requires moving, the wife follows the husband because of the income, then has a difficult time finding employment herself.
"It might take up to two years for the wife to regain her previous status," he said. "In the meantime, the family has taken a hit in terms of income." Some researchers have also found anecdotal evidence of depression among trailing wives, he said.
In high-ranking dual-career couples, sometimes one will negotiate a job for the other as a condition of moving, Cooke said. It is unknown how many compromise by adopting commuter marriages or not moving at all, he said.
He believes the solution lies in socializing more boys and men to think about work and life decisions with as much flexibility and compromise as girls and women do.
Looking at the men in his own neighborhood, Cooke doubts that any would ever become a trailing husband. "All of them are highly educated. All of them have dual-career [marriages]. You never hear a man say, 'Well, maybe I will follow my wife and be primary caregiver and set my career aside.' "
Some women insist the wives in his studies knew their options and trailed by choice.
"Nobody is making them make the sacrifices," said Barbara Ledeen, executive director of the Independent Women's Forum, a right-of-center women's organization based in Washington, D.C. Ledeen, who identified herself as a feminist, said, "Women individually are smart enough and rational enough to make decisions in their own best interest and the best interest of their families."