Why Women Still Can't See Themselves Becoming Breadwinners

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Why Women Still Can't See Themselves Becoming Breadwinners

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Can a woman be the breadwinner in a heterosexual marriage?

That's the case for the 28 percent of straight marriages and cohabiting couples in which the woman makes more money than the man, according to a 2017 Pew survey. And yet, studies have shown that among such pairs, women tend to report earning less than they really do while men tend to report earning more—that is, they lie about their incomes, ostensibly to obscure the fact that their relationship tilts this way. Clearly, we're a little squeamish about the subject. While the Pew study found some 71 percent of adults think men need to be able to financially support a family to be a good partner, just 32 percent say the same about women. In fact, Pew found the words "leadership," "ambitious," and "powerful" to be more often used as negative words to describe women.

According to a recent study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, these attitudes have a serious effect on the way women see themselves—and what kinds of economic success they imagine for themselves in the future. Specifically, a straight woman's expectations for one day becoming the household's breadwinner are heavily affected by what role she thinks her husband will one day want to assume.

Researchers surveyed 645 straight women about how much money they expected to make in the future, their likelihood of becoming the primary economic provider, their likelihood of becoming the primary caregiver, and how much time they expected to spend on a variety of work-related and home-related tasks. Before diving into these surveys, the researchers primed some of the women with information about how the gendered division of labor has been changing, with men taking on more and more responsibilities in the household; the other women were primed with information about how the gender revolution was stalled, and men were not really taking on increasingly involved roles at home.

How did these different mindsets affect the women's expectations for their futures? When they believed their theoretical husbands would be likely to take on a big role at home, women were way more likely to see themselves one day becoming the breadwinner and making tons of money. But when they believed their future husbands would still be primarily work-focused, women's dreams for their own economic success were more likely to be lower. They instead assumed they'd be spending more time as the primary caregiver.

Let's repeat that: When women expect their future male partners to be uninvolved at home, their own personal career expectations plummet.

Do these expectations affect what women aspire to and aim for in their careers? It's possible. The study authors say more research is needed to understand how these stereotypes affect women's career choices prior to actually having a long-term partner, but they don't rule out the possibility.

"Our findings are particularly interesting in light of the tendency for some women to 'leave before they leave'—to opt out of demanding career tracks before there is the realistic need to do so because of family," the researchers write. "Once these hypothetical relative role choices are set in motion, the actual decisions women make could ultimately curtail their career choices and engagement."

For women who have yet to enter a permanent partnership, these findings are a good reminder to be aware of how gendered stereotypes and expectations are affecting us on a deeper level. These external social messages can create internal dialogues that make us believe certain paths aren't attainable. It's important to be mindful of these messages and to make a conscious effort to avoid the constraining, self-sabotaging effects they can clearly have on us.

There's still so much work that needs to be done to change gendered norms and expectations for people of all genders. Women can start by themselves acknowledging how their own desires are being shaped by those norms—and break free, so they can aspire toward more.

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