Reid studied 42 heterosexual men working at a global strategy consulting firm. Her subjects were in their mid-twenties to early sixties and held different positions within the firm’s hierarchy. And, according to Reid, “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.” These men considered themselves their family’s breadwinner.
Reid discovered that while many of the men did resort back to this classic identity, others adopted a more modern viewpoint, identifying as what Reid calls a “breadsharer.”
Reid’s work focused on how these men perceive the social status of their spouses’ careers, and how the men describe the financial value of their wives’ careers—“namely in ways that diminished or that elevated their financial value.”
She found that breadsharers “sought to remain professionally flexible to maximize their ability to respond to their wives’ career opportunities,” meaning they are open to leaving a company, city, country, etc. for their wife’s career. Not only are the breadsharers more willing to compromise career-wise, they also described their wives’ work “in glowing terms,” according to Reid.
One man bragged about his wife, saying, “[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 10, she’s the top-rated speaker on the evaluation forms.”
Breadwinners, on the other hand, are not particularly flexible when it comes to their wives’ careers, and are more focused on personal success within their own company. According to Reid, “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,” a phenomenon that occurred even when the wife was more financially successful than he was.
One breadwinner diminished his wife’s professional accomplishments, 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.” His wife contributed a six-figure salary to the family’s income.
Breadsharers “positioned themselves in sharing terms,” Reid wrote. They are able to place equal importance on their own work and their wives’ work, affecting important family decisions. Breadwinners’ belief that their wives’ careers and income are irrelevant and unimportant continue to perpetuate gender inequality among spouses.
But the most important takeaway from Reid’s research is that a wife’s income, unlike that of the husband’s, doesn’t determine whether or not she is considered a breadwinner herself. It’s the respect that a man does or does not have for his own wife and her professional career.
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards and career advice.