Last month, I found an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review concerning male breadwinners. Given that I write so much about female breadwinners, I thought it only fair that I seek out articles with a different perspective. After all, that’s how we learn more about one another, am I right?
Well this particular article really caught my attention.
You see, HBR found that how men perceive the social status of their wives work has a huge role to play in how they see their own job.
Their perception of their wives work directly influenced what kinds of sacrifices (heck, whether there was any sacrifice) they were willing to make for the sake of their wives careers. “Breadsharers” were proud of their wives accomplishments, while “breadwinners” ascribed a low social status to their wives work. The breadsharers were open to making changes or sacrifices in their own careers for the sake of their wives – while breadwinners were not.
Interestingly, this kind of perspective didn’t seem to have anything to do with how much money the wives made. Women who out-earned their husbands were still sometimes perceived to be working for so-called “pin money”. I wonder if their wives knew their husbands feel this way about their work?
You can read the article in full yourself here. I thought it might be interesting to hear the reaction of someone who’s spent years interviewing female breadwinners in detail. I found it a fascinating read, not without some limitations of course.
First of all, this study was performed exclusively on men who worked for a global consulting firm. This is a very important fact to remember, because the kind of devotion to work required to succeed at a consulting firm is rather unique.
Global strategic consulting firms could include companies such as Deloitte, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Accenture, Bain, Boston Consulting, Earnst and Young, and the like. I have worked with people from several of these companies on various projects, and I’ve seen them work up close and person. They’re working all hours of the day and night, and weekends, and often flying across the country (or across the world) for months on end.
Many of the companies speak of work-life balance, and I’m sure they have it for some roles. Not the ones I’ve worked directly with, though. And this article seems to reinforce the sense that people who succeed at rising in the hierarchy at these consulting firms need to be perceived as having an unwavering devotion to work.
Also the study was exceeding small. There were only 42 men. So based on the small sample size, and the fact that this was specific to men at a consulting firm, the findings are limited. However, there certainly are some interesting nuggets of information here, that may apply outside of the consulting realm.
Perception Is Reality – Even When It’s Not
Men who perceived their wives work as important, were much more likely to support their wives careers. This includes being open to moving, or changing jobs, in order to help further their wives career prospects. They weren’t married to the consulting firm, willing to do whatever it takes no matter what to become a partner at the consulting firm. Instead, they were true partners with their spouses.
Those who perceived their wives work as unimportant, weren’t supportive. They derided their wives incomes as a type of “pin money“, and saw their own careers as the center of the family universe. These men did mostly intend to stay at the firm and make partner. Why not? After all, their careers were most important.
Interestingly, the wives in the second group weren’t stay at home moms, or moms with a part-time job in the kids schools. No, some members in the second group of men had wives that out-earned them. Or wives that earned six figures.
I don’t know about you, but I think with six figure incomes we’re talking about much more than “pin money”.
Here’s a quote from the article, with a man describing his wives six-figure earning career:
“She could have done much more than she has [in her field], but she chose a different path. What I call, you know — being a project manager in the home is the way I describe it….”
Pretty sure most “project managers in the home” wish they earned six figures.
Or what about this quote from a man whose wife apparently outearns him? Well, you see, they really earn about the same because…
“I said to her, ‘If you take your job and net out all of the day care expenses and net out all of the extra tax that we have to pay because you work, we’d fundamentally be making the same amount of money between us.’
And lets not forget about the man, whose wife earns more than he does, talking about how work-life balance is less of an option for men because they need to provide for their family.
The reality of the couples relative earnings seems to have nothing to do with how these men perceive their wives work. And their perception has become the couples reality.
CMO’s Unanswered Questions
Erin Reid, the study’s author, has done some other interesting work. She apparently wrote about why men pretend to work 80 hour weeks back in 2015, and I remember reading about that. It was a fascinating article.
But in this case, I really wish she had interviewed the consulting team members wives. I have so many questions for them. And a few more questions for them men.
For the wives, I’d like to ask questions like, how do you feel about your husbands work and career? How do you think he perceives yours? How do you perceive your own career? What do you think of the prospects for your own career, and your husbands?
Basically, I’d love to know if (1) she knows how their husband perceives her career and (2) she feels the same way he does.
I’d also like to ask them men about why they feel their wives careers have a low social status, regardless of how much money they’re earning. Is it something in their background? Were they socialized to always feel that their wives careers would take a back seat to their own? Or is it related to the specific field of work their wives have chosen?
And what about non-consulting firm men? Do they feel similarly? Is this something where the answer to the question depends on how much the man earns, or the social importance with which he perceives his own career? Would the data be different by income level, or for “blue-collar” vs. “white-collar” workers?
So many questions, so few answers.
My first reaction is that I’m glad I’m not married to the men in the second group. I don’t care if a partner in a consulting firm can make half a million dollars a year.
I’d rather have respect and be treated like an equal partner than have boatloads of money.
Part of this, obviously, is the fact that I’m used to being the breadwinner in my own relationship. Would I feel the same way if I had never been the breadwinner, or if my husband and I had roughly equivalent careers? Honestly I don’t know. It’s impossible to know how we would feel if our lives had been different than they actually were.
But my current perspective, as someone who’s interviewed dozens of breadwinning, six figure, millionaire women, is that I’m really happy I’m not in a relationship like that.
I feel that we all deserve someone who supports our careers. For the men who are willing to make scarifies to support their wives careers – I hope their wives feel the same way.
I also want to recognize that each family makes decisions about balance in dual-career households differently. Sometimes the careers will be treated equally, but other times they won’t. And that’s OK. Sometimes women want to work part-time, sometimes one career will take off, and sometimes the couple will take turns focusing on their respective careers while the other takes a more supportive role.
I support all women in making whatever career choices they want. That’s one of the reasons I’m so curious about how these consultants wives view their own work, and their career in relation to their husbands. I want to know if both parties feel this way.
You might suppose I’d be angry at this, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t roll my eyes a few times at the quoted responses. But I’m more curious than anything else. Since this was such a small study, and focused at such a narrow slice of the population, I’m skeptical that it tells us anything insightful about the population at large.
I Want To Hear From You!
What did you think of the article? Anything that stood out to you? Do you have more questions than I mentioned? Let me know in the comments, or over on social media!
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