There’s something interesting happening with a number of heterosexual couples: When the woman in the couple earns more than the man, the two spouses tend to report their incomes differently. The woman in the couple will say she makes less than she actually does, and the man will undervalue what she makes, too.
Meanwhile, the man is more likely to say he earns more than he actually does—and the wife is likely to say the same. Translation: Some people are still struggling with the idea of a female breadwinner in a heterosexual marriage.
The Census Bureau recently discovered this trend among married couples when they saw that couples’ self-reporting didn’t always match their IRS filings.
“When a wife earns more, both husbands and wives exaggerate the husband’s earnings and diminish the wife’s,” according to a Census.gov article published in July 2018. “But husbands overstate their own earnings less than wives do, and wives devalue their own earnings less than husbands do.”
Basically, women who out-earn their male partners underreport their earnings, downplaying their financial success; the men in these relationships understate their wives’ earnings even further. Further, both parties overstate the husband’s earnings, with women exaggerating the most.
It’s clear that our culture is uncomfortable with women earning the majority of the money in their relationship. Why is this, and how common are female breadwinners anyway? Here’s what you should know.
In the United States, it wasn’t common for married or coupled women to work outside the home until a few decades ago.
Of course, women have always labored and contributed to their partnerships or families. Women around the world have done agricultural work for millennia and continue to do so today. Women also took on the brunt of work around the home, including cooking, cleaning, childcare, and laundry. Worldwide, many single and coupled women work outside of their homes to bring in an income, supporting themselves and their families.
That said, in the United States specifically, it wasn’t common for married women to work in non-agricultural, professional settings until World War II. According to a book by labor historian Kim Moody, “The rate of participation of women in the labor force rose from about 28 percent in 1940 to 37 percent in 1945 and then fell to 30 percent in 1947. By 1950, it was around 32 percent, below the wartime peak but above the prewar level.”
In 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are 74.6 million women in the American civilian labor force. Almost 47 percent of people working in the U.S. are women. And moms are currently the “primary or sole earners” for a full 40 percent of households with kids under 18. Back in 1960, this number was just 11 percent. And data from the Pew Research Center suggests that 28 percent of women earn more than their husband or male partner, while 3 percent earn the same salary.
Data also shows that many people still hold old-fashioned opinions about what men and women’s roles within a partnership or family should be. According to the same Pew research, 71 percent of Americans say it’s “very important” for a man to be “able to support a family financially to be a good husband or partner.” Only 32 percent say the same about women. And 51 percent of Pew survey respondents believe that kids are better off if they have a mother who stays home with them and doesn’t hold a job outside the home—compared to 8 percent who say the same thing about a father.
Research shows that issues can arise when women out-earn their male partners.
One study found that woman breadwinners were more likely to spend time on household chores than their partners and that these couples were “less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce.” Another found that heterosexual men’s self-esteem took a hit when their partner was successful at a given task. Another found that working moms were still more involved in childcare than their working partners.
Essentially, the research indicates that working women who out-earn their male partners are more likely to take on the bulk of the housework and, if they have children, to handle the majority of childcare. Plus, their partners were more likely to struggle from self-esteem issues due to their success. Unsurprisingly, this can cause all sorts of problems.
“You think you have it all. Your career is rocking, you’re providing for your family … it’s everything your mother and grandmothers dreamed about for you. Then someone asks, ‘Is your husband okay with your success?’”
—Lisa Earle McLeod
Lisa Earle McLeod, founder of McLeod & More and author of Selling with Noble Purpose, has been the breadwinner in her family for the past ten years. She says that other people’s questions regarding her family dynamic were extremely frustrating, and notes that no one asked her about her feelings when her husband was the breadwinner for a decade.
“You think you have it all,” she says. “Your career is rocking, you’re providing for your family, your business is growing, you feel fulfilled, it’s everything your mother and grandmothers dreamed about for you. Then someone asks, ‘Is your husband okay with your success?’”
McLeod says her reaction to this type of question or comment varies. Sometimes it saddens her, and other times she’ll hit back with a sarcastic response. If a man asked her the question, she says she will ask him if his wife is okay with his success. She says that these type of comments can make her and her husband self-conscious, even though he is incredibly supportive of her career.
“This conversation spills over into your marriage,” she says. “We like to think we’re immune to the opinions of others, but we’re not. You find yourself asking, ‘Is it weird for you? Do you feel uncomfortable?’ The worst is when you find yourself minimizing your accomplishments—something men rarely do.”
Sadly, research shows that couples where the woman is the breadwinner are more likely to divorce. Data collected by the University of Chicago’s Booth Business School found that a woman out-earning her husband “increases the likelihood of divorce by 50 percent.”
Ultimately, every couple should do what works for them and their family.
But if you are a woman breadwinner (or plan to assume that role in the future) and your partner isn’t handling it well, what should you do?
Experts say that frank communication is key.
“In my relationship, there have been times that I was the main breadwinner. …By treating everything as ‘ours’ and making plans together, there is never resentment whenever one of us is the bigger breadwinner.”
—Jamie Klingman, real estate broker
“Create time in your relationship to talk about this dynamic and how you both are feeling about it, says couples’ therapist Heidi McBain. “Have a conversation about what this ‘role reversal’ means to each of you personally as well as professionally, and figure out ways that you can best support each other. Actively listen to what your partner is saying, even if it’s hard to hear at times.”
Communication and prioritizing each person’s happiness is how Jamie Klingman, a real estate broker, makes things work when she is earning more than her partner. She and her husband have learned to adapt and compromise depending on the other person’s schedule and duties.
“In my relationship, there have been times that I was the main breadwinner. We both prioritize happiness in our careers, and that leads to times where one of us makes more than another,” Klingman says. “We plan for each season and share our financial goals and expenditures. By treating everything as ‘ours’ and making plans together, there is never resentment whenever one of us is the bigger breadwinner.”
“We also realign duties depending on our workloads,” she says. “I take the bigger share when my schedule isn’t as taxed, and he does when his is less. By regularly evaluating and adjusting and prioritizing each other’s most important ‘musts,’ the rest follows suit.”
McBain says that couples who are struggling to talk things out on their own should think about seeing a therapist together to tackle the issues they are facing. There is nothing shameful about going to therapy—a counselor’s office can be a safe space to share any feelings of frustration, resentment, or sadness. Plus, trained counselors can offer you helpful communication tools and ideas for repairing your relationship if needed.
“Couples’ counseling is a great resource and safe place to have these conversations if you’ve tried on your own and haven’t gotten anywhere,” she says. “A trained therapist can help you see the dysfunctional patterns in your relationship and help you to create new, healthier ways of interacting with each other.”
Going forward, it seems likely that young people plan on forging their own paths, regardless of traditional gender roles.
Research shows that college students don’t necessarily plan to follow the caregiver–breadwinner model in their families or partnerships. To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this model—it works for many people and families across the United States and all over the world.
But women who want to be the breadwinners in their families, or earn the same as their partners, should be just as widely accepted as those who earn less than their partners or are full-time caregivers or homemakers.
Young people of all genders report that they plan to up-end traditional family frameworks and do what works for them—and we should all be on board with that.