Do Female Breadwinners Put a Strain on the Family Unit?

iStock_000015442897XSmallBy Michelle Hendelman, Editor-in-Chief

The Glass Hammer recently reported on the increasing number of female breadwinners based on research released by Pew, which indicated that women are the primary financial contributor in 40 percent of households in the United States. According to Pew’s research, 37 percent of female breadwinners are married women who make more than their husband.

Now, in a recent paper entitled, Gender identity and relative income within households [PDF], University of Chicago researchers examine how female breadwinners are impacting the traditional family unit.

The authors, Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan attempt to uncover how the increasing number of female breadwinners is challenging traditional gender-based perceptions and societal norms which suggest that within a married couple, men should earn more money than women. Furthermore, is the presence of more female breadwinners resulting in lower marriage satisfaction and higher divorce rates?

The Work/Life Imbalance

In the scope of work/life balance, the findings of this research present yet another potentially harsh reality for women who want to have it all. The question continues to be raised: Can a successful professional woman enjoy career advancement and a fulfilling home life as well?

The paper’s authors summarize their findings here:

“Within marriage markets, when a randomly chosen woman becomes more likely to earn more than a randomly chosen man, marriage rates decline. Within couples, if the wife’s potential income (based on her demographics) is likely to exceed the husband’s, the wife is less likely to be in the labor force and earns less than her potential if she does work. Couples where the wife earns more than the husband are less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce. Finally, based on time use surveys, the gender gap in non-market work is larger if the wife earns more than the husband.”

This research suggests that women who have the potential to earn more than their husband are more inclined to opt out of the labor force, leaving the husband in place as the primary breadwinner. If this scenario plays out differently, and the woman becomes the primary breadwinner, there is a risk that the marriage will suffer. Can this really be true?

Further research indicates that there just might be a social stigma attached to female breadwinners, despite the fact that the women themselves are very comfortable holding the status of the primary financial contributor in their household. However, since the stigma is founded on traditional notions of gender roles in the financial realm, the real problem becomes more about unconscious bias than anything else.

The Glass Hammer reported:

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, “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.”

The fact that both women and men are being judged by a societal measuring stick that is often flawed indicates a major problem in the pervading corporate culture. Key decision makers must act on fact, not assumption, when it comes to gauging their employees’ interests and abilities.

Changing Conventional Wisdom

When are we going to stop making assumptions and start allowing for a little more transparency in the workplace? Biases at work [PDF] are naturally occurring thoughts and feelings that everyone must overcome. These biases, however, become potent weapons when they go unchecked and begin to permeate workplace behaviors.

In order to challenge theories like those suggested in the University of Chicago paper, outdated norms should be replaced with an open-minded acceptance of the fact that men and women are equal in the workplace. Rather than letting assumptions govern your decisions, everyone should strive to gain awareness of their own biases, assess how these biases impact the decisions made at work, and make the changes necessary to foster an inclusive corporate culture where employees feel engaged and rewarded for their contributions.