Once upon a time women working in the Commonwealth Public Service had to give up permanent employment the day they got married. Thankfully, that bar was abolished in 1966 (although one wonders how many brilliant leaders, innovators and business minds were lost in the years prior).

But the latest Australian Social Trends report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests marriage can still hinder a woman’s career — or at least there’s a perception that education and the early foundations of a career should come before saying “I do”. You only need to look around at the women in their 20s and early 30s to know we’re getting married much later these days, if at all. Plenty of women have long-term relationships, mortgages and kids, but they are still not signing on the dotted line to call it a marriage.

Around two-thirds of 24-year-olds were married in 1976, when the median age for first-time marriage was 24 for men and 21 for women. In 2011, just 14% of 24-year-olds were married, with the average first-time age being 30 for men and 28 for women.

Whether or not women are unconsciously or consciously putting off marriage for the sake of their careers is still up for debate, and it largely relies on anecdotal evidence. In recent media reports on the issue, a number of case studies have quoted women who claim they intentionally spent their 20s focusing on their work, knowing the serious relationship could come later.

Interestingly, some studies have found delaying marriage can actually increase a woman’s earning capacity. A report by The Brookings Institute (and quoted in the Weekend Australian Magazine) called “Knot Yet — The Future of Marriage in the US”, found the annual income difference between college-educated women who marry in their 20s compared with those who wait until their 30s is more than $18,000. It’s the opposite for men, with those marrying in their 20s landing higher incomes than those who wait until their mid-30s.

According to the ABS, part of the marriage delay may come down to the number of women now pursuing higher education. In 1976, just 10% of women were enrolled in a tertiary facility. By 2011 that figure had grown to 28%. For men, the figure is 25%. Still, most of us pursue tertiary qualifications in the first half of our 20s, so that doesn’t fully explain why we’re waiting another five or so years.

Debt may also play a part (all that tertiary education is expensive) as well as ingrained social ideas that you don’t officially “tie the knot” until you’re officially able to live “the knot” lifestyle: house, kids, an excessive and terrifying mortgage, as well as a credit card debt to pay off the actual wedding (IBIS World found the average cost of a 2012 wedding to be $36,700).

Far from hurting, a number of women we’ve recently profiled on Women’s Agenda have credited their husbands as ultimately helping their work. Boost Juice founder Janine Allis said marrying her husband (within eight months of meeting him) was one of the greatest career moves she made, as he gave her the support and confidence she said she needed to create and grow a large business. KPMG managing director Rosheen Garnon could also relate, explaining how the career break her husband took while their kids were young ultimately helped her fast-track her career by pursuing a global role with the firm.

Of course, that’s if you choose the right partner and if you care about marriage in the first place (remembering some of us are still barred from entering such a union).

*This article was originally published at Women’s Agenda

Peter Fray

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