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The burden of being a female breadwinner

Despite more women out-earning their male partners, societal norms place undue stress on high-earning women in heterosexual relationships


Being a female breadwinner has its financial and societal costs. Single moms statistically struggle more, and there are a number of sacrifices that must be made; however, it is possible to work to break the cycle.

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From Hollywood to cultural mythology to national social norms, the familiar tale persists. Men earn the family’s income, or at least, the bulk of it, and women are responsible for the home.

Old tales certainly die hard.

Pre-pandemic, the statistics told a different story. Thirty percent of married, heterosexual women made more than their husbands, according to Prudential’s 2018 Financial Wellness Census. More than 40% of mothers, including married and single mothers, were the sole or primary breadwinners for their households, according to data from the Current Population Survey, a monthly U.S. household survey conducted jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Data is still being gathered for the last, tumultuous year. But we do know that women dropped out of the labor force in droves during the pandemic. Part of that may have been due to women’s high participation in the heavily impacted service sector; other reasons, though, include the impossibility of juggling work with caregiving needs. By April 2021, federal labor statistics showed that women would need more than 28 straight months of job gains to recover the 4.5 million net jobs they had lost since February 2020, the National Women’s Law Center reported.

Much of the blame may lie in federal policies and societal norms that limit subsidized child and elder care while promoting gender inequality in the workplace. But the struggles of female breadwinners also start closer to home – in actuality, the home itself. Survey after survey shows higher rates of marital dissatisfaction, and even divorce, in households where the wife out-earns the husband.

“Men are socialized to bring home the bacon,” said Adam Kol, a financial coach for couples in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. “Even if we don’t know why [we feel this way when a wife earns more than her husband], it brings stuff up. It’s uncomfortable.”

The stress of female breadwinners, by the numbers

It’s not only the men who are uncomfortable when women earn more. Unease cuts both ways. Couples are more likely to under-report the woman’s income when her earnings are more than half of the total household income, researchers from the U.S. Census Bureau found in a 2019 study.

“The societal norm is the husband is a breadwinner,” said Misty Heggeness, a principal economist for the bureau and one of the two authors of the study. “When that norm is violated, there is this behavior to try to minimize that violation.”

Couples are nearly 16% more likely to under-report the wife’s earnings when she earns more than half the household income, compared to when she earns just under half, the survey found. Additionally, couples were nearly 6% more likely to over-report the husband’s income when the wife was the breadwinner.

It doesn’t matter, either, who is doing the reporting. The result is the same. Women will accurately report their own earnings but inflate their husbands’. Men will tend to get their own income correct, but underreport their wives’, Heggeness said.

That financial discomfort can lead to relationship complications. Consider these facts:

  • While wives can work part-time, or stay out of the formal labor force altogether, without injuring the marriage, anything less than full-time employment for the husband increases the risk of divorce, the Harvard Business School reported in 2017.
  • Women who believed they had higher status jobs than their husbands were more likely to feel resentful or embarrassed, less likely to be happy in their marriage and even more likely to consider divorce, according to another 2017 HBR study.
  • Men who made less money than their female partners were more likely to cheat, a Cornell doctoral student found in a 2010 study.
  • Those men were also more likely to use erectile dysfunction medication than male breadwinners, according to a 2013 study from Washington University in St. Louis.

Breadwinner single moms struggle even more

About one in five families are headed by single mothers, and many of these women shoulder the entire household and financial burdens alone. Their stress was exacerbated by the uncertainties and strains of the last year, McKinsey & Co. found in the company’s report, “Women in the Workplace 2020.”

“Single mothers are … more likely to say that financial insecurity is one of their top concerns during the pandemic,” the study’s authors wrote.

PM Kester knows those worries only too well. A public health scientist for a government agency, Kester has been solo parenting since 2018. Indeed, part of the reason her marriage ended was that she had become the primary breadwinner, and her now-ex-husband felt threatened by that, she said.

“The number one difference now (since the divorce) is that the buck stops with me – literally,” said Kester, who was so driven to learn how to slow down and relax that she started her own podcast about the subject – “How To Take a Break.”

Risks that might have seemed worth taking with a second income feel inconceivable to her now that her income is the only one supporting her and her two daughters. For instance – switch agencies? What if the flexibility isn’t the same? There’s no one but her to run pick-ups and drop-offs. Or, what if she takes a different job with a slightly lesser income, but more potential? What if the potential never materializes and, in the process, she jeopardizes her family’s financial security?

“I can’t afford for anything to happen to this boss, or this job,” Kester said.

Dual-adult, female breadwinner households are swimming against societal tides

Stephen Bechten sees it all the time: A wife earns more than her husband, and neither member of the couple is truly okay with it. “It’s important for men to get used to women having more control, but it’s also important for women to get used to handling more power,” said Bechten, a couples and sex therapist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Bechten often sees women in high-powered jobs married to artists or musicians who earn a small fraction of what their wives make. Many of these husbands demanded their wives go with them to therapy, Bechten said, complaining they weren’t getting enough sex.

“But when I looked at the women, I didn’t find any of them had a sex problem,” Bechten said. Instead, they were overworked and exhausted from juggling their career with a full load of domestic duties, he said. Meanwhile, their husbands “were feeling so powerless in their own lives, they had to bring their wives down,” he said.

Research bears out Bechten’s observations. More than 40% of female breadwinners take the lead in housework, according to a 2019 survey by the Institute for Family Studies/Wheatley Institution. When the roles are reversed, only 14% of male breadwinners do more housework than their wives.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the same survey found that women who out-earn their husbands are 15% less likely to be very satisfied with their family life than women who are not the primary breadwinner (56% versus nearly 70%).

Indeed, a couple’s dynamics shift when both partners have to admit that the woman earns more than the man. It can take work to bring the relationship back into balance, and continuous readjustments may be necessary.

When Karen Condor became her family’s primary breadwinner, she found herself “trying to convince my husband that our power dynamic hadn’t changed,” said Condor, a freelance insurance and finance writer in Greenville, South Carolina.

But her husband wasn’t buying it. “He felt emasculated by not having a job,” she said. Despite the fact that he enjoyed cooking for the family and taking care of the home, the burden of society’s expectations weighed heavily on him, she said.

Christina Beavis has the same struggle in reverse. A Canadian businesswoman, she moved her husband and children south to Turks and Caicos for work, then struck out on her own with a company, Project Edify, designed to provide training and mentorship for female professionals. The Caribbean island nation is traditional – most of the mothers Beavis knows don’t work full time, and she has only one other female friend who is the primary breadwinner for her household.

It can be hard to make friends when, after school drop-off, she heads to the office and the other women gather at coffee shops or the gym, she said. And “when you meet someone here, the first thing they ask is, ‘What does your husband do?’ I say, ‘Actually, it’s my job that got us here.’”

How to avoid resentment and embrace the role of female breadwinner

In 2017, the Harvard Business Review ran an article titled, “Does a Woman’s High-Status Career Hurt Her Marriage? Not If Her Husband Does the Laundry.” The study the article referenced – the same study that found female breadwinners were more likely to consider divorce – reported that when breadwinner wives felt supported by their husbands, there was not an increased risk to marital stability. The type of support, however, was crucial. Emotional support was not sufficient; rather, the husbands in those happy marriages pitched in with domestic duties and child and eldercare.

“We suspect that providing this type of tangible support not only allows wives to focus on their careers but also denotes respect,” wrote the study’s authors, Dr. Alyson Byrne and Dr. Julian Barling.

The tangible support of her spouse has been key, both at home and at work, said Dr. Ilana Cass, the chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health Systems in New Hampshire.

“He has a very robust sense of self and integrity,” Cass said of her husband, Bear Barnes. “He’s really introspective and insightful.”

After Barnes got laid off from his corporate job during the Great Recession, he discovered he found more fulfillment at home. Since then, he’s worked periodically as a consultant, even as he followed his wife from Los Angeles to New England for work. He’s been the primary caregiver for the couple’s three children, the youngest of whom is now in high school. Cass still cooks dinner, but Barnes does the grocery shopping and washes the dishes.

When couples struggle to achieve this place of balance, Bechten, the marriage and family therapist, asks husbands and wives to consider what prejudices and expectations they bring to the idea of gender roles in marriage.

“If it’s a husband, I’ll ask him what did he see from his father’s behavior?” Bechten said. “What’s his definition of what a man is? And I’ll ask the woman also, ‘What is your definition of a woman from what you saw from your mother? What do you think of femininity and feminism?’”

Once people understand what unspoken expectations are driving them, they can begin to think about what needs to change so they can work together now. “We talk about what are the upsides and what are the downsides” for each partner, Bechten said. “They will both have to compromise.”

Cass finds she has to consciously fight against her own stereotypes. “Periodically I still get a little embarrassed when I introduce him – as I do with this new job – you know, ‘Here’s my husband.’ ‘Oh, what do you do?’ ‘Well, I’m a homemaker.’ Wow,” she said. “I still kind of have to swallow hard when I say that sometimes.

“But the reality is … increasingly, this is very common for women in leadership,” she continued. A career opportunity will come up for a wife with a leadership position, and the couple will have to talk about what that would mean for the family.

See related: Women in business: Making it as a female entrepreneur

“I think couples oftentimes decide together, ‘Okay, this is what I’ll do, and this is what you’ll do.’”

For the Cass-Barnes household, that division of duties became even more unconventional once the pandemic hit, and they could no longer let their housekeeper come inside the house. Barnes volunteered to do the house cleaning and has continued since the housekeeper remains unvaccinated. He mops the floors, scrubs the toilets and, yes, said Cass, “he does all the laundry.”

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