Why is women out-earning men still an issue in relationships?

By: Lisa Coxon on August 14, 2019

Last year, surveyors from the United States Census Bureau asked heterosexual married couples a simple question for the Current Population Survey: how much does each of you make? Then, to cross-reference the reported earnings with the couples’ actual earnings, Bureau surveyors took a look at the couples’ actual income tax records and compared the two. 

That’s when they found the lie.

When the wife in the relationship earned more than the husband, neither the wife nor the husband admitted it. In fact, in cases where the wife was out-earning her husband, respondents inflated the husband’s earnings earnings by 2.9 percentage points and deflated the wife’s earnings by 1.5 percentage points, on average.

What inspired these couples to lie about the wives earning more than their husbands? According to the Bureau’s working paper on the survey, “When a wife outearns her husband, both the husband and the wife may be uncomfortable — or believe that an interviewer will be uncomfortable — with their violation of the male-breadwinner norm.”

The survey findings reveal that the male-breadwinner norm is still socially desirable. Whereas the truth is not. 

How come?

Separation of work and home

We can’t find an answer to that question without first looking at where the concept of breadwinning comes from. 

According to Sarah Richardson, deputy head of the history department at the University of Warwick in the U.K. and a specialist in gender history, the idea of a breadwinner wage dates back to the Industrial Revolution, when “work” went from something that takes place inside and around the home to something that takes place away from it.

What that did, Richardson says, is create the separation of the home and the workplace.

“Since the 19th century, work has become a very political concept — this idea of going out to work,” says Richardson. “Which means that childcare and housework are not seen as doing work because you’re staying at home and you’re not earning.”

Not only that, but housework used to be a much more family-driven endeavour, where even the children in the family might work around the home. “There was a family economy where everyone worked and all resources were pooled together.”

Today, women are still largely responsible for much of the housework. But they’re also populating the workforce like never before, though they’re still earning only 79 cents for every dollar a man earns.

But why would women who are out-earning their male partners feel the need to hide it? 

There’s this cultural concept that if you are out-earning a man, you should downplay it

When women work outside of the home for a wage, they may not even realize it but they face societal pressure not to upset cultural norms and expectations that say the male should be the higher earner.

“There’s this cultural concept that if you are out-earning a man, you should downplay it,” says Richardson. “There’s this sort of sense of wanting to keep male pride and perception that the man is the chief earner.”

And men face their own set of expectations.

“If you’re not earning as much as your wife, there is that feeling that somehow you’re not keeping your side of the bargain, which is to be the leader,” says Richarsdon. 

“So there’s this sense for both parties that they’re buying into this fiction, which is a historically constructed view of men and women and earnings, particularly husbands and wives.”

“Ashamed” and “worried” 

Being the breadwinner isn’t an easy role. It’s rife with stress and pressure. But for women, it could also be considered shameful. When women take up work outside the home and earn more than their male partners, a funny thing happens: it bothers them.

American writer, podcaster and educator Ashley C. Ford conducted a survey in 2017 of 130 millennial women who were the higher earners in their respective homes, and found out that women are both ashamed and worried about out-earning their boyfriends and husbands. 

In most people’s lifetimes, it would be quite common that they wouldn’t know what the person at the next desk is earning, whether they’re male or female

“I worried about what other people would say,” Nancy from L.A. told Ford.

“I felt shocked, and a little ashamed,” said Sharon from Washington, D.C., of when her husband discovered she was the higher earner while filing their taxes one year. 

Besides being ashamed, many of these women believed that out-earning their male partners was something that either couldn’t happen — or wouldn’t last.

In a Refinery29 article that accompanied Ford’s survey findings, she wrote: “Unlike the traditional trajectory of men who earn more, or are sole financial providers, most of these millennial women either believe out-earning their partners is temporary, or lament the idea that it may not be.”

One of the ways we can work toward dispelling these feelings is to be upfront about our earnings.

Wage secrecy

When men went off to fight in the First World War, women protected their jobs by taking over for them. But once the War was over, women in many Western countries faced something called the “marriage bar” where employers in several sectors required women to give up their jobs as soon as they got married. “So what that created,” says Richardson, “was this sort of generation of women who didn’t work and were therefore reliant on their partner’s income. That’s where this sense of not revealing salaries comes from.”

After the Second World War, it was customary for the male breadwinner of the household to give his wife “pin money,” says Richardson, which could be used for housekeeping and other necessities. “That was his contribution to the family budget,” she says. “He didn’t need to reveal what he earns and how much surplus he’s keeping himself.”

While the concept of pin money died out as the number of women in the workforce began to increase, the idea that wages should be kept private didn’t — especially when it comes to the gender pay gap. That’s why Richardson believes one of the most effective ways to smash the stigma around women out-earning men is to continue to make the wage gap transparent across all households and workplaces.

“Suddenly there’s a lot more transparency but that's very, very, very recent,” says Richarsdon. “In most people’s lifetimes, it would be quite common that they wouldn’t know what the person at the next desk is earning, whether they’re male or female. There’s a lot of secrecy even amongst employees about what they earn.”

And secrecy in the workplace can translate to secrecy in the home, which might help to explain why the U.S. Census Bureau survey subjects both lied to surveyors when the wife was earning more than the husband.

Richardson says that in order to quash the shame both men and women feel about women being the higher earners, we need to keep gender pay gap transparency alive; we need to desegregate the workplace by putting more women in leadership roles; and we need to depoliticize the concept of work and the values that we assign it. 

“So often, this is seen as a monetary issue when really it’s a cultural and historically constructed issue,” says Richardson. “I think if people realized that these ideas and concepts have a past and if they understood them or looked into them then they’d stop worrying so much about the specifics about income and start asking questions.”