A husband’s tendency to identify as a ‘breadwinner’ depends more on whether he respects his wife’s work than on how much money she actually makes, a new study suggests.
Male breadwinners aren’t inclined to toast their wives’ accomplishments.
A husband’s tendency to identify as a “breadwinner” depends more on whether he respects his wife’s work than on how much money she actually makes, according to a new interview-based study of heterosexual couples.
Men who identify as “breadwinners” tend to diminish their wives’ professional accomplishments, study author Erin Reid found. On the other hand, so-called “breadsharers” — “an identity focused on egalitarian sharing in work and family responsibilities,” as Reid put it — tend to speak of their wives’ work with pride and respect. These identities, in turn, led men to downplay or bolster the financial value of their partners’ work.
The breadwinner and breadsharer identities also shaped how men approached their own careers: While breadwinners were intent on moving up the ladder at their firm, breadsharers displayed more flexibility around their wives’ career opportunities and uncertainty over their own careers.
“(For) breadwinners, their wives would just not enter into their career story at all. … It was just so completely unimportant to this man’s narrative of his career,” Reid, an associate professor at McMaster University in Canada, told Moneyish. “Whereas the breadsharers, when they tell the story of their career, it’s very much contingent upon and dependent upon what their wives are doing.”
Reid interviewed 42 married men who worked in a global consulting firm’s U.S. offices; 23 of their wives worked full-time, while 13 worked part-time and six didn’t have jobs. (As the sample contained only straight, professional-class and mostly white men, Reid noted, these findings aren’t necessarily generalizable to other groups of men.)
A majority of the interviewees (60%) viewed themselves as breadsharers: They assigned a high status to their wives’ work (“[Her] skills make her stand out in a sea of experts with her skill … nine times out of ten, she’s the top rated speaker on the evaluation forms,” one said) and described it in words that elevated its financial value (“Seventy‐five percent is mine. But she is sort of a crucial incremental, right? … If it wasn’t for her 25 percent, we wouldn’t be making it.”).
“They would talk about how important their wives’ work was to society, to the world; how much their wives had accomplished. They had this true respect for what their wives were doing,” Reid said. “Then when I asked about how much their wives earned, they would just talk it up.”
Reid found that the remaining 40% who identified as breadwinners bestowed little importance on their wives’ careers. “She could have done much more than she has [in her field] but she chose a different path,” said one. Another poked fun at his wife’s sell-from-home makeup business: “It’s like, one of those, you sign up your friends, and when you sell stuff, you get money, one of those. I wasn’t allowed to call it a pyramid scheme.”
These men also downplayed the financial value of their wives’ endeavors — even, in some cases, when the women earned relatively high incomes. “I said to her, ‘if you take your job and net out all of the day care expenses and net out all of the extra tax that we have to pay because you work, we’d fundamentally be making the same amount of money between us,” said one husband whose wife worked full-time and contributed 30% of their family income.
“They did not view their wives’ work as a career or as important — not nearly as important to the family as their own careers were,” Reid said. “Then when they talked about the earnings, the earnings were just not very important — almost like spare change.”
If she had interviewed these men’s wives, Reid ventured, they might’ve shared different storylines. “Some of them might be consistent,” she said, “but others might say, ‘My work is very important — I can’t believe he says that about me.’”
Meanwhile, research shows women making gains in the breadwinner arena: Women in about one-third of married or cohabiting U.S. couples contribute half or more of the household earnings, per Pew Research — an increase from 25% in 2000 and 13% in 1980. But society still places more pressure on men to bring home the bacon, as 71% of adults say the ability to financially support a family is very important for a man to be a good partner or husband. Only 32% believe the same of women.
A big takeaway from Reid’s study, she said, is that “workplaces really continue to be designed around this model of total work devotion.” “We know that these workplace expectations of total career devotion don’t work for a lot of women,” she said, “and I think this research shows that it doesn’t work for a lot of men, either.”
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