She earns more than he does?

Chances are you have heard these words, perhaps delivered in a whisper, with a hint of a derogatory tone. Yet perhaps in time the attitude that accompanies this question will change as more American households identify the woman as the main breadwinner.

Regina O'NeillRegina O’Neill, professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at the Sawyer Business School, and colleagues from Simmons College recently explored the impact female breadwinner/caretaking roles have had on women’s lives and careers.

An online survey of 651 mid-to-senior-level businesswomen showed that 59 percent were the primary financial contributors to household income.

Women in committed relationships involving cohabitation or marriage responded to questions in the context of their role as financial provider. Their responses were eye-opening:

  • Women are proud of their breadwinner status but often keep it hidden.
  • Women who take on breadwinning still retain primary child care and homemaker roles.
  • Women are not slowing down their careers, but there are still fewer women than men at the top.

When asked about their roles in child and home care, 29 percent said that they did all or significantly more than their partners. Fifty-one percent said they contributed more than or equal to their partner. Yet when asked how they felt about juggling both breadwinner and caretaker roles, most of the women were proud, satisfied and slightly overwhelmed.

There is no boasting about being the primary wage earner, the survey showed. Family and friends may know that “she brings home the bacon”; however, co-workers and employers in general are not aware of this. The women say “it is not anyone’s business to know.”

Seventeen percent of the respondents had risen to vice president or higher in their organizations.

“There is a large disparity between the number of female breadwinners and the number of female executives,” said O’Neill. “We need to close this gap.”

What’s next?

O’Neill believes that as breadwinner roles become more common for women expectations about the roles women and men play at work and at home will continue to evolve.

“This research takes a step forward in understanding ways that employers can support this changing model and can provide organizational support for their employees,” she said.

Those surveyed responded positively to various flexible work concepts, such as working from home, using technology to minimize travel time and longer maternity leaves.

About the study

The survey was the result of a collaboration among O’Neill and Mary Shapiro, professor of Practice and Center for Gender in Organizations affiliate at the Simmons School of Management; Stacy Blake-Beard, professor of Management and Center for Gender in Organizations affiliate at the Simmons School of Management, Suzanne Carter, CEO of SMC Advisors; Cynthia Ingols, senior lecturer and Center for Gender in Organizations affiliate at the Simmons School of Management; Alicia Margoles Bartolozzi, account executive at Merck & Company; and Mary E. Ogle, vice president of NTE Global Strategic Marketing at Teva Pharmaceuticals. The group developed the online survey in collaboration with Hewlett Packard