Overcome The Challenges Of Being A Woman Breadwinner

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

Nora Ephron

Men are still the predominant breadwinners, though, in recent years, more women are earning the mantle in their families. Women breadwinners are more commonplace. Nowadays, they are more likely to have more education, a career and make more than men, but still take the lead in caring for children and the home. These challenges can be overcome.

Women face societal norms that cause the workplace, friends, and family to judge them, sometimes harshly, for making more than their spouse. Yet, expectations are for this higher-paid person to take off time from work to pick up her sick child from school.

Let’s face reality. Women carry more burdens than their male counterparts. They face more trade-offs than men, even when they may be the higher paid dual earners in their household.

This truth became more pronounced when husbands and wives began remote working during the pandemic. The family lost professional support to take care of children home from school, providing a harsh predicament in which women became caregivers while working. As a result, many women left the workforce.

We should be celebrating women as breadwinners. They should be proud of their accomplishments worthy of celebration, rather than facing conflict at the home, in their workplace, and in society. I say, “Congratulations!” It is time for women to achieve greater financial independence.

Statistics On Women

Increasingly, women are the primary breadwinners in their households. Nearly 30% of heterosexual married women are primary earners, excluding women who are sole earners. 41% of mothers are breadwinners, up from 15.9% in 1967.

In educational attainment, 46.6% of women have a bachelor’s or higher compared to 40.3% of men.

Women hold more than half (51.8%) of the American jobs in management, professional, and related occupations.

The gender pay gap stubbornly remains, with women earning about 80.5 cents of every dollar earned by men. However, women’s compensation is moving closer to parity (up to 98%) with men in many professional fields. Pay gaps can result in significant retirement gaps, especially when women leave the workforce for caregiving.

40% of all American businesses are women-owned.

When it comes to buying power and influence, women drive most (70-80%) of all consumer purchasing.

Challenges Women Breadwinners Face

1. Traditional Gender Norms

It may be 2021, but traditional gender norms are slow to change. As the primary earner in our household for most of our marriage, I can tell you that there were unpleasant surprises along the way. We faced more adversity outside of our home than in it from family and friends.

Friends often asked if Craig was upset or angry about my earning status or did it bother me. I would explain that Craig had earned more for many years. We had different professions (Craig was self-employed, and I was an equity analyst), and I worked more hours in a riskier environment.

Both of us had mothers who worked independently and jointly with their husbands in businesses and were significant contributors. Still, they looked at my success in an investment banking firm as temporary until we would have children and focused on Craig’s career path more than mine.

Our Family Was Uncomfortable About Breaking Norms

My mother and mother-in-law had been older parents for their generation, and they didn’t want us to wait too long. I was surprised and upset by my mother’s reaction to my career as I always felt she had a deep belief that I, as a woman, should not be central to our family’s financial security. She didn’t live to see our kids, a regret I will always have.

As it turned out, we have two beautiful kids, now in high school. They tell me they are proud of me when they are not yelling at me. And yes, we are older parents and were out of sync with many of our friends who had kids earlier than us, and we have many younger friends.

We didn’t follow gender norms and took a different path. I loved my job as an equity analyst and love teaching college students and writing about money, earning far less than I did when I worked significant hours.

We delayed having kids frankly because I didn’t want to leave a lucrative job and one that provided little flexibility to do it on a part-time basis. I am fortunate that Craig has always been incredibly supportive of my decision, and I could not easily compromise my workaholic nature.

Our family and friends are not alone in their discomfort with women as primary earners. In a Pew Research survey, 71% of people believe men should support their families financially.

Gender norms are changing. Men spend more time with their families than in the past. In a Pew Research analysis of US Census Bureau data, 17% of all stay-at-home parents in 2016 were fathers, up from 10% in 1989. The data exclude unemployed fathers.

 2. Communicate What You Earn

When the female is the breadwinner in the family, couples lie about their earnings to others and potentially to each other. The latter is especially dangerous as it could lead to financial infidelity that I wrote about and caused some issues.

A study shows when couples lie, women will lower their earnings and men inflate theirs when she earns more.  People believe it is more socially desirable for men to make more. The study found “fudging the number conscious or unconscious” is called “manning up or womaning down.” This behavior may reflect insecure men or women who are guilty. It robs someone of acknowledging their success which is bound to lead to resentment.

3. Breadwinning Women Have Lower Family-Life Satisfaction

According to the Institute For Family Studies with Wheatley Institute in a 2018 survey of US adults ages 18-50, higher-earning women report lower satisfaction than their peers. They found 56% of women outearn their husbands than nearly 70% of women who were not primary earners. The study is called “The Happiness Penalty.”

Women who earn more sometimes feel awkward, recognizing it is unnatural for their husbands to underearn their wives. In the study, women provided 80%-100% of the family income, but 38% of women and their husbands acknowledged their primary providers.

Women breadwinners score lower on marital satisfaction. This study indicates women are uncomfortable with their new role as breadwinners. There was no difference reported for married men whether they were the primary earner or not.

4. Resentment in Relationships

Craig and I have different attitudes towards work. He is more laid back while I still exhibit a Type A personality. Craig works as an attorney in his practice and enjoys flexibility for many years. As such, he has some control over his schedule, though when he gets fairly swamped. For a time, after I went to law school, I worked with Craig for a short time. We have very different work ethics.

Many couples may face conflicts when one person is earning more than the other. Resentment often rises when that person is female. Women may feel guilty they are doing well, especially if their partner has a fragile ego. Couples need two-way communications. Support and sharing are essential traits.

Guilt Over Success

I felt guilt over my success. Friends would often ask how Craig felt about it early in our marriage. They opined that Craig has to be resentful and I should ask him how he thinks about it. We would talk about it, but I believed then that he and I felt we were the beneficiaries of our combined compensation. If Craig was resentful, it was usually because we rarely took vacations, and when we did, I invariably had to work.

Craig was often proud of my accomplishments and let me know. However, I know that I missed cues when he was finalizing a complicated commercial real estate deal and could have been more supportive in times of his stress. Working better hours now, I am more aware of his many successes. As I overshare, he is less open than I am, and his nature is sometimes less forthcoming.

There is bound to be friction between spouses or partners when there are unequal successes. The point is that couples need to be sensitive to each other’s needs and recognize their accomplishments. When resentments are too hard to deal with consider going to a marriage therapist.

Overcoming These Challenges


1. Share Household Chores

When there are dual earners in the household, sharing responsibilities should be the norm. Even if they are breadwinners, women are looked upon to take the lead in housework and caregiving. It is a gender norm ripe for change. During the pandemic, many households lost professional support for caregiving because of social distancing. Women faced more of the burden despite having to work remotely like their husbands.

Yet, during the pandemic, more women left jobs in droves than men. In September 2020, 865,000 left the workforce, compared to 216,000 men. The pandemic may widen the gender gap.

Division of Labor

Couples should talk about the division of labor and how they should split chores. It makes sense that people may be better at paying bills, making meals, or childcare. Some of the duties may require both parties to work together, mostly when making decisions.

Men have made progress in washing dishes and doing laundry, but there is so much more to do. My old-fashioned father, a chauvinist, did the dishes and laundry, too, so you need to stretch your imagination.

Craig does more than his fair share of household responsibilities except for cooking. I have always been appreciative. According to Pew Research, sharing household chores is one of the top three factors associated with a successful marriage. 

2. Honest Communications

The more you communicate, the better your relationship. Money conflicts have long been a source of friction in relationships and a leading cause of divorce.

Honest communication is essential in a marriage. Conversations about finances, goals, careers, having children, or other crucial areas should begin when your relationship moves to a serious nature. Understand what your expectations are of each other. You both deserve to know more about each other’s life plans. You and your significant other must communicate your individual and joint goals.

Don’t lie about your compensation to each other or hide what you earn. It leads to hurt feelings that snowball. Embrace each other’s successes, and if your wife makes more than you, celebrate her stature. If one person works longer hours while the other has more freedom, you need to talk about that before you get resentful.

Consider yourselves as a power couple. If your spouse is making more money, it may motivate you to change jobs or even careers. At the very least, work on your finances to pay down debt, save money that you can invest, build an emergency fund, and put aside for your retirement. Being in control of your finances is powerful.

3. Remote Working

Women typically seek jobs with flexibility, have to work part-time or shorter work hours compared to men. Remote working may be an excellent option with greater flexibility and increased employer support during the pandemic. Many consider remote working as an additional skill. Although working from home has benefits, there may be concern among women that the flexibility may not fully outweigh the negatives of having to do more domestic work when at home.

4. Have Your Own Financial Accounts

Whether women are the primary earner in their homes or not, they should have their own financial accounts. Married couples tend to have joint accounts and that makes sense to pay joint expenses such as your rent or mortgage, insurance, college tuition, or groceries.

However, financial independence is essential for women. Women should be saving for their own retirement, investing, and have their own financial accounts. As their financial clout rises, they need access to their own funds and not just pocket change. Men have their separate accounts for their convenience. Hello? Women need autonomy, convenience, and their own assets.

I have a friend who is a managing partner at an elite management consulting firm. Her husband is a stay-at-home Dad. They only have joint accounts. He monitors her spending though she is not a spendthrift. The only account she has that is separate from her husband’s is her business account for travel and entertainment. This situation is not as uncommon as you think. You can read our post on women’s financial accounts here.

5.  Update Workplace Policies

Working women tend to do most of the caregiving in their household despite more effort from men. Many believe that a greater number of women in the workforce will lead to higher GDP. To do so, more barriers to women’s employment can be lifted by enhancing work-family policies to support working caregivers. Greater access to paid family leave and paid short leave when someone needs to take care of a sick family member.


Final Thoughts

It is good news that there are more women who are primary earners in their households. But they may carry more burdens despite success in their careers. Sharing household duties is essential for a successful marriage and alleviating stress. Talk to your partner about your needs and theirs is a great way to be able to feel greater satisfaction in your family and your life.

Thank you for reading! If you find this post of value, please visit us at The Cents of Money! Please share any comments or experiences you have had.

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