Men report lower wellbeing when women are the sole earner in a relationship, versus where both partners are employed or the man is the main breadwinner, according to a revealing new study.
The research, published in European Sociological Review from Dr Helen Kowalewska (University of Bath) and Dr Agnese Vitali (University of Trento), analysed survey data for over 42,000 people across nine countries, including the UK.
Wellbeing was measured by asking people how satisfied they are with their lives, from zero (extremely dissatisfied) to ten (extremely satisfied). Most people typically score somewhere between five and eight. Men’s ‘life satisfaction’ was 5.86 when women were the sole earners, versus 7.16 when men were.
Wellbeing is lowest in female-breadwinner couples when men are ‘unemployed’ rather than ‘inactive’ (not actively looking for work and/or doing housework or other care responsibilities). Unemployment is typically associated with greater psychological costs, including self-doubt, uncertainty, loneliness and stigma.
The study also showed that men’s wellbeing is higher when women experience unemployment instead of men. By contrast, wellbeing is equally low for women when either partner is unemployed. So, while men and women find the man being unemployed hard, only women seem to find their own unemployment as difficult.
The authors suggest unemployed men may be particularly vulnerable to isolation and loneliness given they are less likely than women to have community or care-based social networks to draw on.
Meanwhile, gendered expectations of selflessness may lead unemployed women to go further than unemployed men in shielding a partner from their distress. This could work the other way, too: when the man is unemployed, the woman may be more affected by his struggles than he would be if these roles were reversed.
Compared with two-earner and male-breadwinner couples, female-breadwinner couples have lower household incomes and are more likely to find it ‘difficult’ to cope on their income. Plus, a higher proportion of men in female-breadwinner couples report poor health and are low educated. All these factors are also associated with lower life satisfaction.
After controlling for these and other factors – including marital status, age, attitudes toward gender and partners’ relative contributions to household income – women’s wellbeing is only marginally lower when they are sole earners. For women, then, it is the characteristics of female-breadwinner couples that mostly explain their lower well-being.
Yet, even after controls, men’s life satisfaction scores remain significantly lower when the woman is the only earner instead of the man. In Germany, the difference is over one full life satisfaction point (-1.112). This is followed by Spain (-0.616), Ireland (-0.609), France (-0.586), Finland (-0.566) and the UK (-0.423).
The researchers argue that men’s lower well-being in female-breadwinner households even after controls likely reflects the importance of being the breadwinner for men’s identities. Providing financially for the family remains key to masculinity and being a ‘good’ dad.
Lead researcher, Dr Helen Kowalewska from the University of Bath's Department of Social & Policy Sciences explains: “Our findings suggest that gender norms affect how couples cope with unemployment, with men placing more value on their own employment status than their partner’s.
“We hope our results can stimulate a debate around this important area, both within couples but also among policymakers. More needs to be done to break the link between breadwinning and masculinity. This might include greater study of gender norms in the school curriculum and campaigns and incentives to get more men to use Shared Parental Leave, for instance.
“Ultimately, we need to keep challenging the ingrained belief that men should be the breadwinner, so that men don’t feel like failures when they can’t meet this expectation.”
To access the (open access) study ‘The female-breadwinner well-being ‘penalty’: differences by men’s (un)employment and country’ see https://doi.org/10.1093/esr/jcad034.
Read more about the research from Dr Helen Kowalewska for The Conversation: 'Couples in which the woman is the only earner report lower life satisfaction – new research'.
The research draws on the European Social Survey, pooling data from Waves 2-9 (2004-18). The sample was restricted to households containing two heterosexual cohabiting spouses or partners aged 18-65, where both members of the couple were (potentially) economically active. Couples in which either partner was in education, permanently sick or disabled, retired, or in community or military service were excluded. The countries were: United Kingdom, Spain, Slovenia, Portugal, Poland, Ireland, Germany, France, and Finland.
The research is part of a New Investigator Grant funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), number ES/S016058/1, https://gtr.ukri.org/projects?ref=ES%2FS016058%2F1.