Breadwinner Women

Greetings!  For this issue of WIM we will be discussing the topic of “Women as Breadwinners.”  We came across a recent article published in NY Magazine about powerful women in Hollywood who are/were in relationships with others who were less financially successful, with a focus on how this situation affected their relationships.  Naturally this is an interesting topic that has come up for many female physicians, especially those who are in relationships with partners who have less financially lucrative careers. In order to approach this topic, we decided to go straight to the source and interview several female physicians in successful relationships who identify themselves as the breadwinner. We started off with the simplest of questions: Definition of “breadwinner” - What makes you / your partner / others regard you as the breadwinner? Is it monetary, career success/prestige, or both?

Interviewee #1: “I feel that the definition of a breadwinner is the person who takes care of the expenses of the house primarily, and usually that’s the person that makes more money. And usually that’s the person that also has a higher position at work, because I feel that they’re both tied together. Higher position goes with making more money.”

Interviewee #2: “I think I’ve always been regarded as the ‘breadwinner’ because for most of our relationship (my husband) has gone through different jobs and interests ... whereas I’ve always been on the same career path. With my husband not working right now, I think people clearly see me as the breadwinner ... I’m the sole income provider for the two of us.”

Interviewee #3: “It’s definitely monetary. I make more than him so I would probably be considered the breadwinner.”

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Our three interviewees establish the definition of a breadwinner as someone in a relationship who makes more money than their partner.  However, there are other ways to define a breadwinner, such as a prestigious career position or increased hours of working.  In our case, all three interviewees agreed that their definition of a breadwinner was primarily monetary.  Current research shows a rising trend in women as breadwinners.  The American Community Survey (ACS) conducted from 2008-2010 shows that wives earn more than their husbands in 26% of couples.1  According to a Pew Research Center analysis of multiple years of U.S. Census Bureau data and a survey conducted during April 2013, a record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.  That share was only 11% in 1960.  Additional Pew Research data from 2011 shows that in nearly one-quarter of married couples with or without children (24%) the wife is the primary breadwinner.2  As these numbers continue to rise, the pressure upon marriages increases.  According to Pew Research, half of all adults say the trend toward more women working has made it harder for marriages to be successful.  Only about one-third (35%) say this change has made it easier for marriages to be successful, and 5% say it hasn’t made much difference.2

To further explore this issue, we asked our interviewees the following: Consequences of being breadwinner: How does being the breadwinner affect your relationship? Positives, negatives, etc.

Interviewee #1: “I find that in my particular relationship it only becomes an issue if it’s ever brought up, so I never bring it up.  It does tend to get brought up by my partner, but I try to avoid the topic because it’s definitely is a sore topic and I don’t think men handle it well. I t’s just my opinion, but I think men like to feel that they are the one sort of in charge of everything and I think it’s sort of a difficult thing in my situation for my partner to deal with.  But it only becomes an issue if it’s brought up.  Otherwise it’s not much of an issue.” Q: Any positives of being the breadwinner? “I’ve been thinking about this and I honestly can’t think of one positive.  I would love to not be the breadwinner.  I would love to continue making as much money as I make but have him make more than me so that it wasn’t an issue at all.  I can’t see any positives aside from me making a lot of money.  I can’t really see the benefit of me making more money than him.  The issue that I find most awkward about the whole breadwinner thing is that when you’re a female breadwinner you’re still a girl.  You still want to feel like when you go out to dinner you’re the one that’s being taken out, and you don’t handle the bill at the end of the day.  Let’s be honest, girls want to feel like they’re girls.  Although my partner certainly does that for me all the time, most of the time we do at least split the bill, or sometimes of course I pay too.  I guess that’s one part of it that you have to kind of let go of."

Interviewee #2: “So I personally don’t have a problem with it … as a doctor I’m pretty sure I’m always going to make more money than [my husband].  I get sensitive when people automatically assume that we must have marital problems because my husband’s not working.  I can tell he gets uncomfortable sometimes … we go out with friends and all of my girlfriends seem to be with men who are physicians themselves or have some other great job.  I feel like [my husband] thinks he’s automatically being judged by everyone. Behind closed doors its a non-issue.  When I met [my husband] we were both in college and he completely supported me going to medical school.  I didn’t stay with him because I thought he would someday support me financially.”

Interviewee #3: “I think making more money helps us overall.  We definitely are able to do more because of the increased income that I have.  I don’t think it negatively affects us at all.”

Interviewee #3’s response is similar to the author Stacey Roger’s claim in Dollars, Dependency and Divorce, where she discusses how the overall increase in household income is a positive factor for families.  When women have a higher income they tend to spend more on the household and children in comparison to men, which is beneficial for the family as a whole.4  According to Pew Research, two-thirds of people surveyed feel that the increasing number of women working for pay has made it easier for families to live comfortably.2  Our second interviewee notes that the only negative aspect is society's outlook on her husband.  She states that “behind closed doors” they are perfectly fine, but her husband feels that friends and family judge them.  This is an issue that was also brought up in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. She notes that as much as society pushes women to do it all, society also happens to look down on men who do “domestic work”.3  These societal pressures make it harder for women and men to have truly equal partnerships in their marriage.  We wondered if our interviewees had similar struggles and felt the need to show society that their husbands had other ways to be the “ man” in the relationship.  We asked the following: Other ways to be the “man” in the relationship: Are there other aspects of your relationship where your partner takes charge? e.g. finances, social planning, child care, miscellaneous decisions, etc.

Interviewee #1: “I would say he’s more the house decision maker.  He sort of handles any time we need to get estimates on things, like getting the house or kitchen remodeled, changing the front door - he’s sort of takes charge of all that.  Ultimately we both make the decisions together.  But when it comes to social things, childcare - that’s definitely more me.”

Interviewee #2 : “Once I’m at home, its a different story [than being at work], I love to be taken care of at home.  My husband makes all the financial decisions ... he takes care of anything having to do with the house or bills.  I’m completely fine with that, I know by now I shouldn’t try to control everything. He’s always the one to plan our date night; he chooses where we go out to and completely takes charge of those sorts of things.”

Interviewee #3: “He definitely pays all the bills but that’s just because I’m not very good at investing and balancing my checkbook, etc.”

With women in society slowly making more money than their significant others, combined with society’s extreme expectations, is being a working woman really all it’s cracked up to be?  In Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, she mentions that women need to get rid of “the myth of doing it all” and that you need to “make your partner a real partner.”3  This means having your partner share in household responsibilities. We asked our interviewees the following: Division of labor: Does your partner pick up the slack in terms of “housekeeping” responsibilities – cooking, cleaning, childcare, etc.

Interviewee #1: “In my situation I’m very much the sort of ‘need to be in charge of everything’ type of person, so a lot of it (me doing more) is probably just me.  Certainly when I’m not home, my partner takes care of everything.  He cooks, the house is in decent order when I get home.  It’s not perfect, but it’s there.  He doesn’t do the basic stuff like mopping the floor and doing the laundry, but that’s fine because I would rather do it myself anyway.  But yes, he does pick up the slack for sure.” Q: How does he feel about doing those things? “He definitely does not get resentful, he just does it because he knows it’s the right thing to do.  I honestly don’t even ask him to.  He’s actually mentioned many times that he would love to be a stay-at-home dad.  I honestly don’t think he means that seriously, because two days in a row with him at home and he’s ready to kill himself.” (We’re laughing). “But no, he’s definitely not resentful. He does the job without being asked.”

Interviewee #2: “The ‘division of labor’ in our house just happens naturally.  It’s like an unspoken rule. [My husband] seems to know when I’m going to have a bad day and I’ll come home to a clean house, dinner and a glass of wine.  He makes sure I don’t have to worry about anything else.  Eventually when we have kids I’m sure he’ll be working harder than I am because he’ll be home taking care of them!”

Interviewee #3: “We pretty much divide everything equally.  I mean there are some things that I refuse to do, i.e. taking out the garbage, and I won’t let him do the laundry but that’s because I don’t trust him.  But I don’t necessarily say he has to do more because I happen to make more.  It just depends on the situation.  For example, if I’m working really late, he’ll cook dinner and vice versa.”

These are three somewhat different takes on the issue of division of labor.  As a society, we have clearly accepted the increasing trend of women in the workforce.  In a 2012 Pew Research survey, only 18% of adults agreed that “women should return to their traditional roles in society,” with fully eight-in-ten adults (79%) rejecting this idea.2  What we have not fully accepted is a domestic role for men in society.  Regarding this topic, Sheryl Sandberg gives the following advice: “While women must be more empowered at work, men must be more empowered at home.”  As a society we are slowly moving away from the stereotypes of the 1980’s where the working woman also had to do everything at home, but we aren’t quite at the point of 50/50 sharing of responsibilities with our partners.  We seem to be stuck somewhere in the middle.  A recent study on gender roles and income suggests that conflicting ideas and opinions about gender identity impacts marriage formation, marriage satisfaction, likelihood of divorce, and the division of home labor.1  Another study on income and divorce suggests that that the association between wives’ resources (namely income) and divorce is moderated by marital happiness.4  It can be inferred from these papers that “doing it all” can place a large strain on marital happiness.  Unfortunately, our society is still in the process of working out the myth of “doing it all,” optimizing the role of breadwinner women, and finding the appropriate work-relationship-family balance for breadwinner women.

To wrap up our inquiries, we asked our interviewees the following final question: Advice: What advice can you give to others on how to have a successful relationship as a female breadwinner?

Interviewee #1: “My advice for this is that the only way to not make it an issue is to not make it an issue.  Basically, you should not bring it up very often.  I’m not saying not to talk about it, but rather not to throw it in their face like “It’s my money,” or whatever.  Just leave it alone because I don’t think that [men] like to hear about it.  I think they’re already very nervous or uncomfortable with the situation and just sort of deal with it because it is what it is.  In my situation, I try not to bring it up.  It does get brought up, usually by him, but I try not to be the one that brings it up.”

Interviewee #2: “Avoid it; don’t bring it up; don’t use it during arguments; only an issue if you make it an issue.”

Interviewee #3: “I would tell them not to throw it in their [partner’s] face.  Don’t tell your partner that he has to do something because you happen to make more.  Don’t expect him to cook your dinner or do the laundry because you’re making more.  It should be because you need help, not because you’re the breadwinner.  Every decision should be a shared decision, you can’t go off and buy something really expensive without discussing it with your partner because you make more money.  That’s not fair and will eventually cause problems in your marriage.  Besides that, the man has to be confident in himself.  My husband knew what he was getting into, he knew I was going to be a doctor and going to be making more and he was ok with that.”

Interestingly, our first two interviewees both suggest avoiding the topic altogether.  This may be a wise strategy to follow in order to avoid making a partner uncomfortable, but it is also somewhat disturbing that women may feel hesitant to discuss their achievements and accomplishments with their partners.  Being a breadwinner is something to be proud of, and certainly not a topic that breadwinner men avoid.  The last interviewee also touches on a very interesting point about division of labor.  She mentions that when asking more of your spouse, it should not be in a way that is demanding because you happen to work more and feel entitled.  When you ask for help, it should simply be because you are in need of your partner’s help.  Sandberg offers further advice to women who are attempting to make their husbands more equal partners.  She states, “Each partner needs to be in charge of specific activities, or it becomes too easy for one to feel like he’s doing a favor instead of doing his part.”

All three of our interviewees have very different marriage lifestyles, from the woman who does it all, to the husband to who does all the domestic work, to the couple who splits everything in half.  This underscores the fact that our society is at a transition point.  As more and more women are obtaining higher-paying jobs in the workforce, they are making up an increasing percentage of primary breadwinners in American families.  The old societal structure of women as homemakers and men as moneymakers is starting to go out the window.  When this transition first began in the early 1980’s, women feared that they could only have one or the other: either a promising career or a promising marriage/family life, but definitely not both.  Otherwise they would be stuck being “superwoman,” which not everyone could do.  On the contrary, our interviewees have showed us through their various responses that there is no need to fear having to choose a career over a relationship/family, or vice versa.  Societal pressures have changed, and while we still have a ways to go, women as breadwinners is now much more commonplace.  As women, even if we are the primary breadwinner we can still have a fulfilling career and successful relationship.  Whether you’re the primary breadwinner in a relationship or just a working woman in a relationship, you can still “have it all,” but you cannot be expected to “do it all.”  And as our third interviewee alludes to, being in a relationship with a confident partner who is not threatened by your success is a key factor to having a successful relationship as a female breadwinner.



  1. Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan. Gender identity and relative income within households. NBER Working Paper No. 19023. Issued in May 2013.
  2. Wendy Wang, Kim Parker and Paul Taylor, “Breadwinner Moms: Mothers Are the Sole or Primary Care Provider in Four-In-Ten Households with Children; Public Conflicted about the Growing Trend,” Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends project, May 29, 2013.
  3. Sheryl Sandberg. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.
  4. Stacey J. Rogers. Dollars, Dependency, and Divorce: Four Perspectives on the Role of Wives’ Income. Journal of Marriage and Family 66 (February 2004): 59–74.