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Professional careers are notorious for demanding that people be single-mindedly devoted to work. It’s a demand that is often especially acute for men, who face rigid expectations that being a successful man requires having a successful career, and that “success” means power and money.
Men have traditionally satisfied these expectations by taking on the role of a work-devoted breadwinner, supported by a wife who does not work or who places his career first. But many heterosexual men today are married to women who pursue demanding careers of their own; moreover, many women expect that their husbands will support their careers and be more engaged in family life than previous generations of men have been.
The contradiction between the traditional image of the successful man and the reality of men’s lives creates a conundrum: How do men make sense of who they are in relation to their work, given their wives’ careers?
My research suggests that while some men fall back on the classic identity of a breadwinner, others respond to this tension by adopting the modern identity of what I call a “breadsharer.” Research on dual-career couples often focuses on how spouses balance their earnings or work hours, but my research showed that these groups of men differed most fundamentally in how they perceived the social status of their wives’ work — its worth and prestige in society. This perception in turn shaped how men described the financial value of their wives’ work. In other words, wages are far more than just dollars: As sociologist Viviana Zelizer has eloquently detailed, money is imbued with meaning, and this meaning shapes how we regard and treat that money. My research reveals how men’s evaluations of the prestige and social worth of their wives’ work shaped how they positioned their wives’ earnings — namely in ways that diminished or that elevated their financial value.
These different interpretations of the social status and financial value of their wives’ careers provided men with different ways of approaching their own careers. Breadsharers sought to remain professionally flexible to maximize their ability to respond to their wives’ career opportunities, and were hence uncommitted to any particular pathway and open to leaving their organization. Breadwinners, however, seeing no need to be flexible around their wife’s career, tended to be more committed to achieving success within their organization’s hierarchy.
I studied men working at a global strategy consulting firm. As in many such firms, the consultants were expected to be primarily devoted to their work: to be willing to travel far from family and work long days and weekends with very little notice. I interviewed 42 heterosexual married men at the firm. These men ranged in age from their mid-twenties to their early sixties and were employed at different levels of the firm’s hierarchy.
Men at this firm generally believed that to be successful, they had to be fully devoted to their employer and willing to prioritize their work over any work a wife did. As evidence of this equation, they pointed to senior men at the firm, who were almost all married to women who did not work outside the home. But this was not true of the men in my sample. When I began this research, I was told by an insider that most men at the firm had stay-at-home wives. In my sample of 42 married men, 23 of their wives worked full-time and 13 worked part-time. Just six of the 42 wives were not working at the time of the interview. There was thus a clear tension in the firm between common beliefs about men’s family lives and the actual characteristics of men’s families. Among the men I interviewed, this tension led to a fair amount of career angst — and marital conflict.
Some men (23 of them, 60% of the sample) conceived of themselves as breadsharers — husbands who valued enabling each partner to pursue their work and family goals. These men described their wives’ work in glowing terms, regarding it as high status and worthy of respect. They spoke at length of how important their wives’ work was, how well it was regarded by others, and of their wives’ many career accomplishments. For example, one man described his wife in the following way:
[Her] skills make her stand out in a sea of experts…. She’s an excellent public speaker. And one of her gifts is that she’s able to convey very complex concepts to lay audiences and expert audiences…. Whenever she speaks at any conference, she’s like, nine times out of ten, she’s the top-rated speaker on the evaluation forms.
These men used language that elevated the value of their wives’ earnings. One man described his wife as his “gravy train.” Another explained in detail why his wife’s earnings were more important than their dollar value might suggest: “The fact that she doesn’t work full-time is probably what makes us at odds. But otherwise, on a per-day wage, we probably make the same money…. We both do feel quite empowered at our work, because the other works.” Describing a difficult situation at work, he explained that his wife’s earnings had empowered him to stand up for himself because, “I knew, right, there was no need to [worry about being fired]. It’s not like we were going to go hungry or anything — you know, the mortgage will be paid.”
Valuing their wives’ work so highly, these men positioned themselves in sharing terms: placing importance on both partners being able to pursue their work and family-related desires, hopes, and dreams. They supported their wives’ work alongside — and sometimes ahead of — their own. One explained: “I want to make sure she continues to be in a professional situation where she can [succeed], and that, in turn, you know, puts pressure back on me to sort of say, “OK, wait. Our life is not going to be the one where I get to do whatever the [expletive] I want job-wise, just because my life is not the center.”
This support for their wives’ careers meant that men were uncertain about the direction of their own careers. The firm demanded an unwavering attention to work, which would lead to a pathway to partnership. But these men felt that their wives’ careers required that they themselves remain adaptable and open to changing jobs, cities, or countries. These men were thus not so committed to continuing along the pathway the firm expected of them.
They were aware that in this, their own expectations for themselves differed from the expectations they faced at the firm. One told me, “We’re an interesting couple in that I went to business school, I work as a consultant in the professional services space, in a world where in many ways many of the men in the consulting world, right, are the primary breadwinners in the family and I am not that.”
A smaller group of men (17 of them, 40% of the sample) positioned themselves in terms consistent with the traditional male breadwinner identity. These men accorded low social status to their wives’ work, which seemed to prime them to view this work as having little financial importance to the family. This happened even when wives seemed — to an external observer — to be quite financially successful.
One minimized his wife’s career achievements, saying, “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….” His wife contributed one-third of the family’s income — about a six-figure salary.
Another framed his wife’s (considerable) wages in ways that seemed to disappear them: “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.’” These men’s characterizations of their wives’ earnings as fundamentally unimportant, somewhat frivolous, and optional echo a longstanding cultural history of the value of women’s work being diminished through labels such as “pin money.”
Having diminished the status and financial value of their wives’ work, these men easily laid claim to the identity of a work-devoted breadwinner, which they viewed as essential to their potential career success. One man (whose wife was a full-time professional in a similar role and earned more than he did), put it this way: “Work-life balance is less of an option for the guy if he feels the need to be successful and provide for the family. And I guess that’s the situation that I’m in right now.”
These men, unlike the breadsharers, mostly intended to stay at the firm and make partner. And why wouldn’t they? They had made sense of their wives’ careers in ways that freed them to devote themselves to their work as their firm demanded. Yet while some seemed quite happy to be breadwinners, others felt trapped: Even though they claimed a breadwinner identity, it was not always a completely satisfying one.
Why should we care about how men identify themselves in relation to their wives’ careers? We often focus on how women’s work lives are shaped by their family lives, but the ways that men’s work lives are shaped by their family circumstances are too often ignored. This study showed that how men in professional careers defined themselves in relation to their work, as well as how they approached their careers, was very much shaped by how they interpreted the social status and financial value of their wives’ work.
The importance of status in men’s interpretations was somewhat unexpected; in our conversations about work, career, and couples, we often focus on earnings and work hours. This research shows that social status — worth, esteem, and respect — matters too for couples’ careers. No husband with a wife who was a doctor or lawyer minimized her career or discounted her earnings, no matter how much or little she worked or earned.
Finally, this work shows that money matters in couples’ careers, but not in the ways we think. Salaries are more than dollars and cents; they have a social meaning and that meaning is quite malleable.