What if women earned more than their spouses? An experimental investigation of work-division in couples


Female specialization on household work and male specialization on labor-market work is a widely observed phenomenon across time and countries. This absence of gender neutrality with respect to work-division is known as the “work-division puzzle”. Gender differences regarding characteristics (preferences, productivity) and context (wage rates, social norms) are generally recognized as competing explanations for this fact. We experimentally control for context and productivity to investigate preferences for work-division by true co-habiting couples, in a newly developed specialization task. Efficiency in this task comes at the cost of inequality, giving higher earnings to the “advantaged” player. We compare behavior when men (or women) are in the advantaged position, which corresponds to the traditional (or power) couple case where he (or she) earns more. Women and men contribute equally to the household public good in all conditions. This result allows us to rule out some of the standard explanations of the work-division puzzle.

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Fig. 1

Note that in baseline no player was advantaged but that nevertheless one of the two players knew that he would be advantaged throughout the experiment. Stars indicate p values from Wilcoxon signed-rank test on differences in framing (*<0.1; **<0.05); p values above 0.1 are marked as ns (for the detailed values see Tables 5 and 6)

Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Efficiency for disadvantaged players is computed as their investment in the public account (i.e., their contribution) divided by 20. For advantaged players, efficiency equals their investment in the private account divided by 20. In the Abstract and No leisure treatments, investment in the private account equals 20 minus investment in the public account; in the Leisure treatment this is not necessarily the case as subjects may have used the leisure option. The couple’s efficiency rate is simply the mean efficiency rate of the spouses

Fig. 4


  1. 1.

    Benefits can be material but might also be related to status or emotions. Benefits also have to be adjusted for either material or non-material costs.

  2. 2.

    The existence of efficiency concerns among unrelated individuals has been suggested by Engelmann and Strobel (2004) and Engelmann and Strobel (2006) and been discussed in Bolton and Ockenfels (2000) and Fehr et al. (2006).

  3. 3.

    Specialization in couples has also been studied by Goerges (2015), however, for a task where spouses jointly decide whether to specialize or not and who of the two partners should take the role of the ‘advantaged’ player.

  4. 4.

    In other domains (Gneezy et al. 2009) it has been shown that gender differences can be inverted given different institutions. Specifically it was observed that the generally believed greater competitiveness of men disappears in a matriarchic culture.

  5. 5.

    We present here the actual point earnings also used in the experiment. To avoid calculations with fractions, each unit invested in the private account returns 10 experimental units, and each unit invested in the public good returns 6 experimental units to each of the two spouses.

  6. 6.

    In a preceding article, we discuss how model predictions are affected when participants in the experiment are true couples. Efficiency is reached more easily because of two phenomena: a strong aversion to payoff inequality within the couple and the presence of a micro-norm of sharing which contaminates the way individual payoffs are transformed into individual welfare. Because couples have interactions outside of the laboratory (essentially consumption sharing habits) the control of individual payoffs remains imperfect and this generates a complexity in the analysis that we chose not to integrate in this article. The interested reader can refer to Cochard et al. (2016) and consider that an income-pooling micro-norm would generate a preference for efficiency during the experiment.

  7. 7.

    In real life, such specialization could also be due to lower household productivity or to social pressure inflicting additional costs.

  8. 8.

    A further control for spouses concerned whether earnings where private or known to the partner. Results from these sessions (another 22 couples) will not be discussed in this paper.

  9. 9.

    The exchange rate to Euros was in the sessions for spouses: 20 FT = 1 euro. It was adjusted for the student subject pool to 40 FT = 1 euro to represent standard experimental earnings from participation.

  10. 10.

    Concretely, in parts two (Leisure) and three (No Leisure), both tasks were identical and, denoted as A and B. They both consisted of copying phone numbers from a list but corresponded to either a public or a private investment with different pay-offs for the individual and the couple. Payment for both tasks was by time spent on the task and not by quantity or quality of the work done. By doing so we exclude productivity differences due to different ability levels. Participants were paid by interval of 15 s, for a total endowment of 5 min (i.e., 20 × 15 s = 300 s). Participants could switch back and forth between tasks and payment was calculated by the total amount of time spend on either task. The task was rather easy and participants had a 3 minutes time interval to familiarize themselves with the task and the computer interface that allowed switching between the different options. In part three (No Leisure) payment was not dependent on effort (having actually worked and typed numbers) but solely on the time the participant chose to spend on the computer interface corresponding to either task. The whole time endowment was therefore allocated between the public or private account. In part two (Leisure) this was not necessarily the case: specifically inactivity was considered as leisure and therefore not counted in either account. While working, participants could see in real-time how much time they had left and how much time they had already spent on the two tasks.

  11. 11.

    In the baseline game each point/time interval invested in the private account earned 10 experimental currency units, and each point/time interval invested in the public account returned 6 experimental currency units to each partner. In the specialization game one of the two partners earned for each point/time interval invested in the private account 13 experimental currency units (i.e., the 'advantaged' player) while the other received only 10 experimental currency units.

  12. 12.

    Before final payout participants entered a chat phase (Part 5, see Table 4). This phase allows us to observe possible transfers between partners after finishing the experiment. Specifically partners were given the option to decide to allocate part of their earnings to a common envelope if desired. Results are not discussed in this paper.

  13. 13.

    Standard deviations are in parentheses.

  14. 14.

    Unless otherwise stated, tests are two-sided.

  15. 15.

    It is not possible to treat all data (n = 128) as independent observations as each spouse’s decision is clearly not independent from his/her partner’s decision. Thus, we carry out tests on each sex separately (n = 64 observations for each).

  16. 16.

    The overall high contributions in the baseline could be also due to other characteristics that make participating spouses different from standard subject pools: notably their age, income or education level.

  17. 17.

    Efficiency for disadvantaged players is computed as their investment in the public account (i.e., their contribution) divided by 20. For advantaged players, efficiency equals their investment in the private account divided by 20. In the Abstract and No leisure treatments, investment in the private account equals 20 minus investment in the public account; in the Leisure treatment this is not necessarily the case as subjects may have used the leisure option. The couple’s efficiency rate is simply the mean efficiency rate of the spouses.

  18. 18.

    Specifically when doing all pairwise comparisons in 14 out of 16 cases we observe no significant difference, and we observe a small difference in two cases (specialization game for disadvantaged men (Leisure: 16.5 (6.9); No Leisure: 17.9 (5.9); p = 0.025) for spouses, and advantaged women (Leisure: 2.4 (3.3); No Leisure: 1.3 (2.2); p = 0.009) in the control).

  19. 19.

    Across treatments men and women typed approximately eight ten-digit phone numbers per minute (i.e., about 80 keystrokes per minute). This suggests that subjects felt as much compelled to provide an effort in treatment No Leisure than in treatment Leisure, although no sanction actually existed in the former.


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We would like to acknowledge financial support from the ANR-DFG project TIPI ANR-08-FASHS-018 (French-German co-operation program) and the ANR project SINT ANR-15-CE33-0005-01. Support by ANR Labex IAST is gratefully acknowledged. We are indebted to Klenio Barbosa, Stéphane Cezerra, Marion Podesta, Lee Dinetan and Jiakun Zheng for excellent research assistance, to Kene Boun My for software programming and to the editor and two anonymous referees for their comments and suggestions. All errors remain our own.

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Correspondence to Astrid Hopfensitz.

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Cochard, F., Couprie, H. & Hopfensitz, A. What if women earned more than their spouses? An experimental investigation of work-division in couples. Exp Econ 21, 50–71 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10683-017-9524-5

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  • Experiment on couples
  • Time allocation
  • Work-division

JEL Classification

  • D13
  • C99
  • J16