Today women are more likely than ever to be the primary financially contributor (breadwinner) in their households – but that doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with it yet. At least, that’s what a new study out of the Simmons School of Management says.
Mary Shapiro, Professor of Practice at Simmons and leader of the study, explained, “A lot of girls and women have gotten that message – to be financially independent and find joy and personal satisfaction in their job. But society has lagged.”
The research is based on a survey of over 460 businesswomen who attended last year’s Simmons Leadership Conference in Boston. The majority of breadwinner respondents said they don’t share their financial situation with their family, friends, or colleagues, because, they say, it’s just not anyone’s business. The top reason? According to the survey, they were most likely to say they don’t want to “embarrass” their partners.
The women breadwinners in the study reported feeling high levels of pride in themselves and satisfaction in their jobs, yet they were conflicted. They worried what others might think of them and their partner’s unconventional roles. Shapiro said, “The message is, ‘I’m ready to be a breadwinner, but I’m not sure everybody else is ready for me to be a breadwinner.’”
Survey participants were mainly white, middle class women, who were asked to reflect on a current or past relationship in which they were married or co-habitated with a partner. The majority (about 98 percent) reflected on relationships with a male partner.
The proportion of women in breadwinner roles seemed high: 59 percent said they were the primary financial contributor in their household. Shapiro said she wasn’t surprised that more than half of the women in the study were breadwinners. We probably know more female breadwinners than we think.
“Why are we happy to talk with our girlfriends about sex, but not about our salaries?” she asked with a laugh. In fact, in putting together the research team, she had her first discussion on the topic with the other women leading the research. “Four of us had known each other for ten years and we had never had this conversation. It turned out every single one of us was a breadwinner.”
“Women oftentimes feel like if they take a breadwinner role, society immediately starts to question if they are competent as a mother or a spouse, since that arrangement is still etched in society’s brain. Now when a woman who goes off to work, the assumption is that she’s neglecting her children, even though we know men want to be more engaged at home,” she said. The majority of breadwinners in the survey said they still contribute more time to home care and child care than their partners (80 and 75 percent respectively).
“Society still conveys that women are supposed to be caretakers and men are supposed to be breadwinners,” Shapiro said. “There’s still a dichotomous assessment of what we’re supposed to be. We see what happens in the media. There are derisive articles and covers of magazines, essentially making fun of women in the breadwinning role and men in caretaking roles.”
It’s time for that to change. We can overturn old-fashioned views on these roles by taking a stand and talking openly about being breadwinners – rather than keeping it a secret. We may also need to challenge our own beliefs about what a female breadwinner looks like.
“We expected breadwinners to be tired, frustrated, angry, unhappy, because they lacked support at work. But the women in our study did not come across that way. They were very proud of the role they did, and more satisfied in their role than the non-breadwinner.”
Changing Conversations at Work
The dichotomous and out-dated assessment of gender roles can also be harmful at work – for everyone.
For example, Shapiro said, female breadwinners may be missing out on stretch opportunities like international experience because of assumptions their boss might have. “There’s an assumption that if I ask a woman to take one on, she won’t take it because of her family. But if she’s the primary breadwinner, she’s probably going to say yes.”
She continued, “She continued, “The flip side is also true – if men are the secondary breadwinner, they may actually be the ones to say no because they are spending more time on childcare and housework. But because their earning status is invisible, Their boss may then have different assumptions about why they said no.”
It also has implications for pay and promotion for women. “There’s the assumption that a woman is going to need more flexibility because she’s going to have to run to the day-care at 5pm to pick up the kids,” Shapiro said, so women may not even be offered demanding jobs.
Similarly, this kind of thinking keeps workplace flexibility programs from being widely available. “The benefits are still structured to be more women-centric. For example, companies may offer maternity leave, but no paternity leave.” When it’s harder for men to access these programs, it means women may encounter backlash from men in the workplace who view them as having an unfair privilege.
By sharing more about our personal situations when it comes to household financial contributions, we can help create more equitable workplaces for everyone.