Why Aren’t We Ready for Female Breadwinners?

iStock_000014539701XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

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.’”

Why not?

Unconventional Roles

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.

6 Responses

  1. alina

    Maybe one of the big problems is with positioning a carrier driven woman as the bread maker in the family. Do we really need to have ONE bread maker? And why would anyone need to know your financials at home?
    At work, everyone – man or woman should be compensated based on the value that they bring to the organization. I have a family, and kids, an underpay husband? That is my personal life and I should never expect to use them for my advantage. But this is what we do – we keep positioning ourselves as victims , and expect to get rewards. I believe that the biggest discriminator of women is the woman.
    My message to my boss is: this is what I can do for you – this is my value and my worth.
    Message to myself: what important for you? You want to be a soccer mom and work – then 9-5 job should do it; do you want to have a career – than, what can I compensate from my home chores with outside help, and what am I keeping for me?
    Message to my husband: next week I need 2 days to stay late in the office. Can you cover the kids? When? Or/ should we get a nanny?
    Message to my kids: Mom is busy but thinking of you, I cannot be part of every field trip, but I can make some. Lets make sure that we maximize weekend – coming Monday I will not be home to help – but you have my phone. Also, where do you want to go in the summer? I just got a nice bonus.. And girl, if you want to keep traveling when an adult – keep your marks up – look at the life you can get

  2. Dear colleagues,

    I am happy to read this!!

    This is a real challenge to our banking and rural microfinance interventions, which aim at economic empowerment of women.

    Yes, indeed gender systems and social roles of women and men are established in different socio-cultural contexts, which determine what is expected, allowed and valued in a woman/man and girl/boy in these specific contexts. Thus, depending on the context, economic empowerment of women can be a source of concern to men in respect of them maintaining a position of pre-eminence or final arbiter status within the family power structure. Thus, safeguarding this final arbiter status can lead to both overt and covert means of resistance. Normally, resistance is sustained if the outcome of the project intervention initiates a marked deviation or departure from the equilibrium of family power relations, or the accepted role of women from both the cultural and religious perspectives

    Our GENFINANCE and WEMAN Teams (, sponsored by Oxfam-Novib have been key advocate on this same issue at the recent global Microcredit Summit in Spain (Nov 14-17, 2011), produced report titled: FINANCIAL SERVICES FOR GENDER JUSTICE (Linda Mayoux and Getaneh Gobezie):

    and we have also earlier facilitated the USAID/microlinks (Speakers Corner 42) ”Mainstreaming Gender in Microfinance” discussion:

    as well as contributed to the recent UN-Women Expert Group Meeting on economic empowerment of women (Ghana, Sep 2011):

    More information is also available on my Linkedin profile:-

    Kind Regards

    Getaneh Gobezie
    Gender and Ruralfinance consultant

  3. Jean McMahon

    The dirty little secret is out. For many years, I felt very isolated as the breadwinner for my family. Slowly, I learned there were lots of other women in the same role. My personal journey included taking a step towards financial independence when my kids were toddlers by going to grad school. On completion, I saw my opportunities and salary increase. With new options and more money, my confidence increased. I’m very proud of my career and my financial contribution to our family. Luckily, my husband and I were flexible and skilled enough to trade off parenting and earning roles. When the kids were young, we scheduled “parent on duty” for a number of months at a time so that we were both able to pursue career goals that required travel or extended periods of long work hours. I’m not sure that I “have had it all,” but I have managed to have a lot with more to come.

  4. This article was interesting and informative and I agree with most of it. However I do think that the life balance aspect needs to be considered in more depth by women breadwinners,namely understanding what the life they want to craft should look like. I recently undertook a survey of Breadwinners and received over 600 responses and the one of the big pieces of advice was ‘make time for family and friends’ and ‘enjoy your work’ these can be forgotten in our race to the top.
    You can download a summary from my site , it is full of insights.
    Jenny Garrett
    Executive Coach and Author of Rocking Your Role

  5. I’m not based in the States we are in Scotland, and in the area that we live in, there is a real split between stay at home mums and mums who work, but I would say that despite a high level of mums who are career woman and university graduates the dads in the family are still the main breadwinners, one mum I know work more hours in a higher position (in the same company) than her husband yet he still earns more than her, she feels two maternity leaves in 4 years has halt her progress both in terms of career progression and pay rises, its such a shame that this still happens to this extent.

  6. The challenge here for women is knowing when to take off their ‘super woman’ cape and with it the assumption that she can do it all (work, kids, home, partnership, etc etc). As women buying into the idea that we can ‘have it all’, we have to be mindful that the statistics show that even if women are the breadwinners, they also still do the bulk of the work associated with the house and family. Perhaps we need to step back a little and consider what does it mean to ‘have it all’ and what is the real cost.