Even Breadwinning Wives Don’t Get Equality at Home

fontina / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Americans are making major strides toward gender equality. Women have surpassed men in obtaining college degrees. Women have flocked to many formerly male-dominated occupations such as law and medicine. In 2018, a record number of women candidates were elected to Congress. And high-school seniors today are more likely than their counterparts 40 years ago to say they strongly believe that women should have the same opportunities as men to succeed in school and at work. But gender equality for women still lags in another realm: their own home.

That women should take on the bulk of domestic responsibilities is still a widespread belief. Married American mothers spend almost twice as much time on housework and child care than do married fathers. Although American mothers—including those with young children—are far more likely to be working now than in past decades, they spend more time on child care today than did moms in the 1960s.

One way to understand how women’s success at work is treated at home is to look at heterosexual breadwinning wives—women who outearn their husbands. About 29 percent of married women in the United States fall into this category, and it’s a group that has been steadily growing. But when wives are professionally successful, couples are often reluctant to acknowledge the woman’s status as the breadwinner. In one study of families in which wives earned at least 80 percent of the total household income, researchers found that in just 38 percent of the couples did both the husband and the wife say that “breadwinner” was an appropriate label for the woman. It wasn’t just the husbands who were skeptical of the term—wives were actually less likely to think of themselves as breadwinners than were their husbands.

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Why are Americans so reluctant to acknowledge wives who are breadwinners? One reason is that couples in the U.S. continue to idealize and privilege a family structure with a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. Recognizing women as breadwinners threatens the idea that a family fits into that mold. When wives earn more than husbands, couples often reframe the value of each spouse’s work to elevate the husband’s work as being more prestigious and downplaying the importance of the woman’s job.

Breadwinning wives also don’t get parity in how household chores are divvied up. As wives’ economic dependence on their husbands increases, women tend to take on more housework. But the more economically dependent men are on their wives, the less housework they do. Even women with unemployed husbands spend considerably more time on household chores than their spouses. In other words, women’s success in the workplace is penalized at home.

One possible explanation for this is that by outearning their husbands, wives worry that they are breaking norms on gender expectations. The same norms are at play for men in female-dominated occupations, such as nursing, who are more likely than other men to do more masculine types of housework like power-hosing the deck or mowing the lawn. Women in male-dominated occupations, such as law enforcement, tend to do more feminine tasks such as cooking and washing the dishes. These men and women are “correcting” for their jobs by asserting their masculinity and femininity through housework.

I’ve seen these processes play out in my own research on how married couples with kids respond to men’s versus women’s unemployment. After interviewing dozens of heterosexual, upper-middle-class families in which one spouse was unemployed, I found that while men’s unemployment was framed as a grave problem in need of immediate rectification, women’s unemployment was not. That was true even when women had earned half or more of the total household income. (The couples I talked with were granted anonymity to talk openly about their family situations.)

The husband of one unemployed wife who for decades had earned about three to four times his salary told me that he would “be perfectly happy to have her just sort of hang out and enjoy life.” He felt no particular urgency for his wife to find another job, instead emphasizing that his income alone is enough to support the family. Of course, that would mean dramatically downscaling the family’s lifestyle—replete with vacations abroad, a house in an affluent neighborhood, and expectations of sending their teenage son to an expensive college.

But it’s not just men who are keen on enforcing the notion that they should be the family’s earner in chief. Wives play a crucial role in framing husbands as breadwinners too. A lawyer who had been the breadwinner in her marriage told me that after she lost her job, she turned her focus to her husband’s business and how he could grow it, instead of worrying about how she could find another job to ensure that their family remains financially stable. Ironically, her educational credentials and prior work experience mean that she is actually positioned to bring in more money than her husband. Instead of focusing on how the unemployed woman could get her next job, the couples I talked with focused their attention on ensuring that the husband’s career was flourishing. But when a husband loses his job, there is a frenetic focus on his next job.

What do these dynamics reveal about gender inequality? The U.S. is inching toward gender equality because of profound changes in women’s lives—they’re the ones who, for example, have forced their way into traditionally male-dominated fields. But in comparison, men’s lives have undergone less drastic changes over the past few decades. While men have somewhat increased their participation in housework, other aspects of their life—such as the imperative that they must earn and provide for their family—remain largely as they were decades ago.

When Americans think about fixing gender equality, they tend to direct their ire on the workplace. They focus on why the number of women in higher-level managerial positions or C-suite positions has remained stubbornly stuck for the past few decades. They focus on discrimination in hiring decisions and biases in promotion policies. They focus on the pay gap between what men and women make for the same work. These workplace considerations are extremely important, but so too is what happens at home. Until Americans turn their attention to the home, where gender inequality remains deeply protected by old-school social norms, they will have an incomplete picture of the problem and incomplete solutions for addressing it. Somewhat counterintuitively, addressing the gender gap at home can often be more difficult than in the workplace, since the issue is of inequality between spouses, not colleagues.

Better public policies will go a long way in spurring more equal practices in the home. Americans generally prefer arrangements where both spouses work and split housework. But this changes when they can’t rely on social supports such as paid family leave, subsidized child care, and flexible work arrangements. Without policies allowing them to pursue an egalitarian family life, men and women tend to fall back on unequal family arrangements that prioritize a male breadwinner and female homemaker.

But individuals can play a role in changing their own behavior within families. This gendered division of housework will not be made equal by women doing less, but by men doing more. Small moments in the home—the wife who tidies up the house when she notices a mess; the husband who mindlessly leaves his wet towel on the bathroom floor, assured that someone else is there to pick it up—lead to larger patterns of inequality within marriages. Daily habits matter, and without change they’ll continue to drag women down.