Men identify as the breadwinner if they do not respect wife’s career

Who gets to be the breadwinner of the family? For some men, claiming that title may depend if they respect their wife’s choice of career, not how much their wives are actually earning.

For Harvard Business Review, Erin Reid, an associate professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business, highlighted her new research for Gender Work, & Organization. Reid said that men shaped their identity as a breadwinner around thesocial status of their wives’ work — its worth and prestige in society,” which in turn impacted the financial value they thought their wives’ salaries had.

Breadsharers vs. breadwinner identities

Interviewing 42 heterosexual married men at global consulting firm, Reid found that there are two identities men at the firm take on: men who saw themselves under the more egalitarian identity of “breadsharer” and men who fell back on the traditional identity of breadwinner.

The male breadsharers at the firm “valued supporting their wives’ work alongside — sometimes ahead — of their own.” They praised their wife’s accomplishments, and bragged about their wives’ high-status jobs. They understood that their wives’ careers required them to be flexible and open to new career paths. They elevated the monetary value of their wife’s careers. One man called his high-earning wife his “gravy train.” As another man at the firm put it, “I want to make sure she continues to be in a professional situation where she can [succeed], and that, in turn, you know puts pressure back on me to sort of, say, ‘Okay, wait. Our life is not going to be the one where I get to do whatever.”

Breadwinners, meanwhile, were devoted to the firm, and diminished the importance of their wife’s contributions. One man called his wife’s job “the best mom‐job you can get” and said that “our income is all me, her stuff is fun money.” Even for these men who had partners in high-earning jobs, they still clung to the title of breadwinner by downgrading its importance. One man, who had a wife who worked more than 30 hours per week in a senior‐level position, had this to say about her: “She could have done much more than she has [in her field] but she chose a different path. What I call, you know, being a Project Manager in the home is the way I describe it.”

Why were men talking down about their wives’ jobs? Because they felt threatened by the fact that their high-earning, career-driven wives could take the title of breadwinner away from them.

“[Breadwinners] may have been threatened by their wives’ work and its potential diminution of their own status,” the study said. “Men in professional roles may adapt, ‘undo’ gender and stray from traditional masculine identities, yet traditional masculine identities and the status they confer remain appealing.”