Combining an enriching career and a loving relationship is a goal for many people. But for women, this goal still presents higher hurdles, even in the most gender-equal countries in the world. Our research on Sweden finds that women pay a high price for their career success. Being promoted to a top job in politics or business leads to a dramatic increase in the divorce rate for women, but not for men.

By studying Sweden, we can get a sense of what lies ahead for other countries that are moving toward more gender-equal labour markets. Already thirty years ago, Swedish women’s rate of higher education surpassed men’s, and their labour force participation reached a similar level. Nowadays, the proportions of female CEOs, corporate board members, and top-level parliamentarians are among the highest in the world. Advances have also been made on the family front. Unlike in many other countries, women with successful careers in Sweden are equally likely to have been married and to have children. In other words, women who aim for top jobs do not have to completely give up having a family. What happens to this family when the woman climbs the career ladder is another story, though.

We follow women’s and men’s relationships each year in time as they advance to top jobs in Swedish society. For the two political jobs of mayor and parliamentarian, we can compare the relationship trajectories of job candidates who either got the job or not. Candidates for mayor are the two top-ranked politicians for the political left and right blocs in Sweden’s 290 municipalities. Depending on the electoral results, one of them becomes mayor and the other does not. For parliament, candidates appear on a rank-ordered electoral ballot. Depending on the vote, a number of seats are counted from the top of that list. For a party that wins four seats, the fourth gets elected and the fifth does not. We analyse all those marginal pairs of candidates from electoral ballots, the winners of the last seat and the first losers who wanted to get in, but ultimately did not.

Starting with politicians who were married four years before the election, how many remained married to their partner? Figure 1 shows a striking difference between women who win and women who lose. Once the women who were promoted to mayor or parliamentarian (the black line in the figure), assume their job, the rate of divorces doubles compared to the women who failed to win the promotion. In the paper we show that all post-election differences between promoted and non-promoted women are statistically significant, and that these results are robust to various sensitivity analyses. Among men, there is no evidence of a similar effect.

Figure 1. The proportion (starting at 100%) of men and women who remain married in each year in time before and after an election where some (black lines) become promoted to mayor or parliamentarian, and others (grey lines) do not.

Turning our attention to CEO promotions we can compare men and women who became promoted, but unfortunately lack data on rejected job applicants. Figure 2 shows the relationship trajectories of men and women who went from being an employee to being the CEO of a firm with at least 100 people at some point between 2002—2012. Again, we start the comparison four years before the promotion and with a sample that consists to 100% of married people (Y-axis starts at 1). Over time, the figure shows a striking pattern where women, after becoming CEO, start divorcing at a clearly higher pace than the men with the same career transition. Divorce following promotions to top jobs appears to haunt women also in the private sector.

Figure 2. Proportion of men and women (starting at 100%) who remain married to their spouses after being promoted to CEO of a firm with more than 100 employees.
Figure 2. Proportion of men and women (starting at 100%) who remain married to their spouses after being promoted to CEO of a firm with more than 100 employees.

Are women happier without their relationship? This is possible, although it is unclear why the women would choose to opt out more than men. One thing that the data allow us to say is that the women who divorce after getting top jobs are less likely than others to strike up a relationship a new cohabitant or spouse. Divorces hardly seem motivated by an attractive set of new potential partners. What is also worthwhile to consider is that the women we study have been married for an average of 20 years when they get promoted. Clearly, these women did not enter into marriage lightly, and we would be hard pressed to believe that they did not value a life with a loving spouse in the first place.

We get closer to understanding the reasons for women’s divorces by zooming in on which relationships are more likely to end after the promotion. This detective work leads to suggestive evidence about couple formation. Heterosexual women — both those that aim for a top job and those who do not — often enter relationships with men who are older and earn more money than they do. Men, in contrast, often have younger wives with lower-paying jobs. The tendency for women to “marry up” means that their own promotion to a top job could create particular frictions at home. The economic and status balance that the couple used to have gets out of balance. In the Swedish data, divorces after promotion are concentrated to couples in which the wife was younger than her husband by a larger margin and where the wife took a larger share of the parental leave. The situation looks entirely different in more gender-equal couples. For women with a smaller gap in age to their spouse, and who split parental leave more equally with their partner, divorce is not affected by the wife’s promotion.

What should women do to insulate their relationships from career-related stress? To cite the Swedish top politician Birgitta Ohlsson, in her book on career advice to young women: the most important career move is to find the right husband.