Breadwinners, Breadsharers, and the Status of Women’s Work

The value husbands place on their wives’ contribution depends more on the social status the job offers than the money it brings in
couple in kitchen

The essentials

  • Whether husbands see themselves as breadwinners or “breadsharers” (equal financial contributors) depends to a surprising extent on how much they value their wives’ careers — regardless of how much or little their spouses earn.
  • That assessment, independent of dollar-and-cent contributions, informs how men view their own career arc and their relationships.
  • Breadwinners are more likely to be committed to their current firm, and envision climbing the career ladder by putting work first consistently. Breadsharers are less certain of their futures at the company, due to either their wives’ growing careers or the time they have to spend managing their homes or with their families.

Two generations ago, the split of familial responsibilities between wives and husbands was pretty clear: men worked and supported their families financially while women cared for children and the household. That no longer holds: in 2017, a third of married Canadians earned roughly the same amount as their partners, and in 17 percent of marriages, wives out-earned their husbands, serving as the primary breadwinner.

This shift in family dynamics has launched countless conversations on how dual-income couples operate both within their marriages and at work. The majority of existing research focuses on the emotions that men and women experience when wives earn as much or more than their husbands, and how those emotions affect a marriage

These past studies have often assumed that the main breadwinner was simply the person who earned more money. But a recent study by Erin Reid, associate professor at McMaster University, found that whether husbands saw themselves as breadwinners or equal financial contributors actually depended to a surprising extent on how much they valued their wives’ careers — regardless of how much or little their spouses earned. And that emotional assessment, independent of dollar-and-cent contributions, informed how men viewed both their own career arc and their relationships.

Traditional Breadwinning and Career Success

To study men’s interpretation of their wives’ earnings, Reid interviewed 42 married men who worked in the U.S. offices of a global strategy consulting firm. The men interviewed were different ages and at different stages of their careers, but they were all expected to advance up the same traditional career ladder, putting in long hours, travelling frequently, and staying late or working weekends.

The job’s demanding pace, and the fact that most of the firm’s senior leadership were married to stay-at-home wives, made many of the men at the firm believe they had to function as the primary breadwinners in their relationships — with women caring for the home — in order to succeed at work.

“When I told my chief contact at the firm that I was interested in studying men’s work–family experiences, she responded that she believed most men there had stay‐at‐home wives,” Reid, a former graduate student at Smith School of Business, noted in her paper.

In the course of Reid’s research, however, she discovered that more than half of the men she spoke to were married to spouses with full-time jobs. Another 31 percent of the men’s wives worked part-time, and only 14 percent were not working during the study. The majority of women were working and contributing financially to their families — but whether their husbands seemed to value that contribution equally or not depended more on the social status of the job than its financial value.

Breadwinners or Breadsharers?

About 40 percent of the men Reid studied identified as “breadwinners,” or the primary providers in their families. The other 60 percent, Reid found, could be categorized as “breadsharers,” or equal providers who valued both their wives’ and their own professional and familial goals equally.

One of the differentiators between the two categories was indeed dollar-and-cent amounts. All six respondents whose wives did not work, for instance, identified as breadwinners, and breadsharers’ wives were more likely to work full-time while more of the breadwinners’ wives worked part-time.

But outside of financial contributions alone, men’s interpretations of their wives’ work clearly affected whether they identified as a breadwinner or a breadsharer. Depending on the social status and value they placed on their wives’ jobs, they either diminished or elevated her contributions to the family.

Breadwinners were more likely to diminish wives’ contributions, making their income seem less important than its financial weight might imply. Some breadwinners called their wives’ earnings “fun money” or referred to their work as simply “helping out” her colleagues

Breadwinners were more likely to diminish wives’ contributions, making their income seem less important than its financial weight might imply. Some breadwinners called their wives’ earnings “fun money” or referred to their work as simply “helping out” her colleagues.

Breadsharers, on the other hand, tended to elevate their wives’ financial contributions, openly admiring their skills at work or referring to wives’ financial contributions as a “crucial increment” that allowed their family the high quality of life they enjoyed.

The view men held of themselves as breadwinners or breadsharers not only affected how they interpreted their wives’ income. It also influenced how they envisioned their future careers. Breadwinners were more likely to be committed to their current firm, and envisioned climbing the career ladder by putting work first consistently. The drip-down effect of that, of course, was expecting wives to take on childcare and home management duties so that they could succeed professionally.

Breadsharers were less certain of their futures at the company, due to either their wives’ growing careers or the time they would have to spend managing their homes or with their families.

Changing Dynamics

The study results raise a number of questions, Reid says. Among respondents, senior-level men were equally divided into breadsharers and breadwinners, while junior-level men were more likely to be breadsharers. Could breadsharing attitudes prevent men from moving up the ladder? Are men revising their breadsharing views as they move up the ladder? Or are changing family dynamics simply imbuing modern workplaces with more breadsharing approaches?

The results certainly point to a clear need to continue changing expectations of employees, with a strong focus on work-life balance and continued highlighting of individuals who fit outside the traditional “male breadwinner” mold of career success. Doing so, Reid says, “might help disentangle taken-for-granted associations between family role and career success, such that men — and women — begin to see for themselves other ways of being while succeeding.”

After all, half of the senior-level men interviewed by Reid still identified as breadsharers. Judging by the many changes seen in workplaces and families in recent years, that’s a progressive outlook that’s not likely to dissipate anytime soon.

Kenza Moller

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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