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I Do, If You Will: Women Prefer Their Husbands to Be the Breadwinners

A new study reveals something decidedly vintage—but encourages us to think about gender in a new, and more nuanced, way.
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(Photo: Svetlana Lukienko/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Svetlana Lukienko/Shutterstock)

You may not have picked your spouse for his breadwinning capacity or her caretaking skills, but plenty of people you know probably did. That, at least, according to a new study that, using a pioneering way to measure gender-role beliefs in the United States, revealed something decidedly vintage: Women prefer their husbands to be the primary breadwinner, and men are good with that.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem to add up. More than ever before, women are able to financially support themselves, and often their families as well. A 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that women account for 52 percent of all workers in management, professional, and related occupations—slightly higher than their 47 percent share of total employment. And in the largest American cities, median full-time salaries of unmarried, childless women under 30 were found to be about eight percent higher than those of their male colleagues. So why the apparent anachronism of women wanting their husbands to out-earn them?

Dr. Catherine Tinsley of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, the study’s lead author, chalks it up to the fact that those gender roles have been our working model for decades, offering an established division of labor that most people have been pretty much OK with. But as more women join the workforce, clinging to the status quo can hinder opportunities—for both women and men. Besides the obvious financial drawback for women, rigid gender roles can hurt men too. For example, Tinsley says stay-at-home dads experience notable prejudice, with a large conformist swathe of society wondering what’s “wrong” with them.

We were talking about gender roles, wage gaps, and equal rights decades ago—and we’re still talking about gender roles, wage gaps, and equal rights today.

“I think there’s a part of us, as a collective society, that doesn’t want things to change,” Tinsley says. “I’m most interested in facilitating a better dialogue about why that is.” Which is why she and her research partners, Taeya M. Howell (of the Stern School of Business at New York University) and Emily T. Amanatullah (of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas-Austin) felt it was time for a fresh way to gauge gender-role beliefs.

Traditional surveys ask respondents the extent to which they agree with scenario-based statements like “Employed women contribute to child delinquency,” and “A wife has no time for outside employment.” (Those are actual survey questions.) Such statements are antiquated at best, Tinsley says, and they tend to offend female respondents. Men will still mark “agree” to statements like that. But, Tinsley says, even if a woman agrees somewhat with the statement, she’s not likely to explicitly say so, and so her nuanced opinions aren’t captured.

Enter gender determinism, Tinsley et al.’s new sliding scale that measures how strongly an individual believes gender dictates characteristics like personality, innate abilities, and attitudes. For instance, instead of asking respondents to rate their agreement with values like, “Women are happier at home,” researchers ask people how strongly they agree that, “There is not much people can do to really change how they will act because of their gender.” On the surface it appears subtle, but it’s an enormously different line of questioning. The result, the researchers propose, is a truer, cleaner measure of people’s beliefs.

To clarify, sex is the biological category that distinguishes men from women, and gender is a social category that cleaves along lines of masculine and feminine. “If you go back to Jungian psychology,” Tinsley says, “the idea is that everybody has a masculine and feminine self, and, at least in our society, if you’re a girl, you’re socialized to develop your feminine side, and if you’re a boy, you’re socialized to develop your masculine side.”

There are obvious and meaningful biological differences in the sexes, like the fact that women bear children and men don’t. “That’s the big one,” Tinsley says. The other conspicuous organic difference is physical build. Men tend to be taller and have more muscle mass. These differences still retain varying degrees of relevance in determining who does what in the workforce, military, and around the house.

Increasingly, though, work and labor are two very different animals, thanks in part to technological developments like computers, but also power steering on tractors and robotic assembly lines. It’s probably time, Tinsley says, to retire the old-style gender-role belief surveys so we can gain a better understanding of our long-running conversation on the topic. After all, we were talking about gender roles, wage gaps, and equal rights decades ago—and we’re still talking about gender roles, wage gaps, and equal rights today.

“It’s great to finally have a term for it,” Tinsley says of gender determinism, “and know it’s a phenomenon that really exists instead of some fuzzy notion. It’s a new way of opening the conversation back up and acknowledging that we do have preconceived notions about gender, but minus the value-laden judgments.”

For their most recent paper, Tinsley and her team conducted four separate studies. The first tested whether an individual’s belief that gender determines a person’s characteristics (gender determinism) is different—and can be measured distinctly from—what has been previously measured in standard gender-role studies. Yes, it is, and it can. The second study explored the specific question of whether women have a greater preference than men for their spouses to be the primary wage earner (yes), and if their level of gender determinism could predict that preference (yes again). A third tested for semantic bias (concern cleared). And the fourth study looked at whether women with a high level of gender determinism make work choices that lead to their earning less money than women with low gender determinism. Yes they do; the research appears to have exposed something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that women with high gender determinism channel themselves into lower-paying jobs.

To reach their results, Tinsley’s team sampled about a thousand undergraduate students from a large public Southwestern university and a large private Eastern university with an average age of 22.5, and about 300 adults from across the U.S. with an average age 35. It wasn’t a giant random sample, but the results proved conclusively that gender determinism is a valid measure. The team’s paper, “Who Should Bring Home the Bacon? How Deterministic Views of Gender Constrain Spousal Wage Preferences,” will be published in the January 2015 issue of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Tinsley and her colleagues are already looking at how gender determinism affects hiring and advancement decisions, how it influences female political candidates and voters, and how it shapes perceptions of whether institutions like Congress and the military would be better or worse off with more women in them. And at the end of the day, she takes her homework home. While she grew up playing capture the flag and building forts with a neighborhood posse of both boys and girls, Tinsley’s husband had a far more traditional upbringing. “We joke about it a lot,” she says, noting that it all still works, in part because they are aware of their different upbringings, and are at once able to negotiate and willing to compromise. Where couples get messed up, she observes, is when they aren’t honest with each other about what they believe or what they want. There’s nothing inherently wrong with man-as-breadwinner, as long as it’s a conscious, considered decision.

Ideally, how we define our roles in a relationship—whether we take out the trash, keep the pantry stocked, or check the oil in the car—will be a choice, not an assumption. Understanding the forces of gender determinism can ease both external and internal pressures on a relationship, and usher us into a more open-ended, mutually satisfying “free to be me” model for couples. That’s the compelling value Tinsley’s work brings to the table, no matter who sets it, or who brings home the bacon to put on it.