In the 1950s, the idea of a woman providing for her husband and family was unheard of. Our grandmothers stayed in the home, caring for children and working odd jobs for extra cash, while our grandfathers went out into the world to make money for the family.
As women gained more rights, we started seeking careers of our own. We attended college, learned trades, and made our marks in traditionally male-dominated industries.
With these advancements came the rise of a new type of woman, a provider: the female breadwinner.
Female Breadwinner Statistics
Research from a 2021 study showed that 70% of mothers can expect to be the primary provider at some point during their children’s lives. Another study showed that 54% of women outearn their partners.
Last year’s college enrollment picture shows the trend is unlikely to change. More women than men are enrolling in college at a nearly 2 to 1 ratio.
Society Slow to Adapt
Society doesn’t keep up with current trends. There’s still a lot of strife, complex feelings, and controversy surrounding female breadwinners from both genders.
Men feel ashamed that they aren’t living up to society’s ideal male “provider,” while women still struggle with intrusive thoughts about who should pay for what.
Outdated gender norms are pervasive and prevent people from living their chosen lives.
Also See: Our Grandmothers Had Very Different Choices than What We Have Today
Downplaying Women’s Contributions
A 2018 study highlighted the complex feelings both genders have about female breadwinners. It discovered that both men and women downplay a woman’s contributions when she makes more.
Why is that?
It appears as though women feel shame when they outearn their husbands, and men are intimidated by their wives’ success, especially when it outshines their own.
One of the biggest hurdles female breadwinners face is societal expectations.
Society still pushes us into defined roles. Men are providers; women are caretakers. Those who deviate from the script are out of place.
It starts when we’re young. Little girls get baby dolls and cooking sets for toys, while little boys get to play with toy trucks and explorer sets. We’re bombarded with messages about moms caring for children, cooking dinner, and completing chores while dads go to work.
Our families and friends further perpetuate these stereotypes. They judge girlfriends on their looks or social graces while judging boyfriends on their jobs and career prospects.
Girls who bring home dates who can’t provide hear, “you could do better,” or “why are you wasting time with that loser.” I’ve listened to these messages when dating “down,” which means dating a good person who doesn’t make as much money as I do, and I’ve felt that pang of guilt in knowing I’m not doing what my family expects.
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How To Navigate Complex Feelings
It’s nearly impossible not to let these negative feelings brought on by societal expectations affect you. Women feel judged or ashamed for outearning their partners, but having those feelings is okay.
It’s important to explore them.
Identifying Why You Have Those Feelings
Are you truly ashamed of your partner, or is it something else? I discovered I only had those feelings because I was raised to believe that a man should show his commitment through his spending power.
My dad’s favorite story to tell my sister and me was about one of my aunt’s first dates. The boy took her to a donut shop and bought one donut for them to split.
My aunt was appalled.
She wouldn’t split a donut with someone; she was worth a whole donut! When my dad told us this story, he emphasized that we are whole donut girls and should never settle for anything less.
When I was younger, I internalized the story and only thought of it in terms of income. He should have shown how much she meant to him by buying her a whole freaking donut!
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Reshaping the Way You Think About Partnership
Now that I’m older, I understand that the donut was a metaphor for overall contributions to the relationship, not just the financial ones.
A man doesn’t have to offer riches. He can give love and empathy, take on the bulk of the domestic chores or provide a safe space for his partner. There are thousands of ways to contribute to a relationship.
With reflection and understanding, you can discover where your negative feelings about gender and money come from. This understanding will make it easier to dismiss those feelings – or act on them if you determine that’s what’s best for you.
Not Letting it Affect the Relationship
If you want to dismiss those feelings, you must ensure they won’t negatively affect the relationship.
We lash out at the people closest to us when we are negatively affected by our feelings. Remember why you decided to date that person, and consider their non-monetary contributions to the relationship.
Think about how your partner enhances your life.
My husband is an artist. He’s slowly building a portfolio and body of work, but it doesn’t pay the bills. However, he cooks dinner every night, does the bulk of the housework, drives me everywhere, and takes care of my emotional needs. He offers so much that the lack of money doesn’t matter.
Sometimes we can’t work through these complex feelings on our own. It’s okay to seek help through therapy if you struggle to overcome negative emotions associated with outdated gender roles.
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Coming to Terms with Making More
Both partners must be on the same page about each other’s contributions. Both genders have complex relationships with money and providing, but working together to find a solution and compromise that works best for your relationship is vital.
Here are two critical ways for both parties to come to terms with the female breadwinner.
Conversations about Money
The best way to mitigate differences in salary (regardless of who the breadwinner is) is to have adult conversations about money. These can be tricky, but they are necessary if a relationship will work.
Both partners need to feel that the contributions are fair and equitable, regardless of who is making more. There are many methods of doing this- some couples do a 50/50 split regardless of who makes what, while others contribute based on a percentage of each person’s income.
The only right way is the way that works best for both parties in your relationship. One person shouldn’t steamroll the other; both must feel the split is fair.
See Also: 13 Money Conversations You Need To Have with Your Partner
Non-monetary contributions are essential to a healthy relationship. Although not often recognized, these are often more important than money.
Knowing that someone has your back no matter what, that you always have a shoulder to cry on, a hug for a bad day, or a joke to brighten up your mood is one of the most valuable things in the world. Don’t dismiss these emotional contributions just because there’s no dollar attached to them.
Other things, like planning engagements, taking care of things around the house, and contributing to the mental load, also benefit a relationship.
Historically, these contributions have been considered “women’s work,” but that does a disservice to both genders. Some men are better at housework, and some women are better at making money.
Men are just as capable of emotionally supporting their partners as women. Women are just as capable of working long hours and bringing home a paycheck as men.
We need to acknowledge humans as people with unique desires and capabilities regardless of gender.
Society Slowly Inches Forward
Society is making great strides in recognizing these things as truths, but we aren’t there yet.
As more and more female breadwinners stand up and say how proud they are to bring home that bacon and more and more men say how proud they are to support their wives in other ways, this will change.
We are on the brink of it now, and it’s an exhilarating prospect!
Society is slow to adapt, but when it does, it’s to the benefit of all. So ladies, go out there and make your money. Men consider staying home and taking care of the chores.
Find a partnership that makes you happy, and stop worrying about contributions based on gender expectations.
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.
5 thoughts on “Female Breadwinners are Becoming More and More Common. Here’s How to Navigate Complex Feelings and Expectations”
Every negative feeling you described is exactly how I feel. It’s compounded when a coworker said last week, oh, he doesn’t make good money? No, I’m the higher earner… in a society where our wages stink to begin with.
I wish it wasn’t as stigmatized as it is, but being the woman, having all the female responsibilities (decision fatigue! Having to remember everything!) plus being the bread winner? Ugh. Personally, I hate this position.
How do you pretend it’s ok when your “higher income” is still nothing to brag about?
Yeah, its a tough position to be in. Honestly, thats why I”m thankful that my last relationship didn’t work out. He wasn’t contributing as much on the non-financial side as I needed him to. I think resentment was building on both sides. I don’t know how to pretend it’s ok. Stagnant wages continue to be a problem for everyone. Tons of people are in the position of being the breadwinner because there are no other options – there are jobs but wages are just too low. I wish I knew the answer to that.
My ex-husband was on disability so I was definitely the breadwinner. It could be tough on his ego not to work and to bring in so little money. I spent a lot of my time trying to protect his feelings about it and it was exhausting
I now make enough that, short of dating an engineer or IT guy, I’ll probably make more money than the next person I date. I guess I’ll just have to fall off the bridge when I come to it.
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