Money, like sex – and how much of it we get – is a topic not discussed in polite Canadian society. So here is my dirty little secret: For several years, I earned more in the corporate world than my husband did launching a startup company.
It sounds obvious, and perhaps insignificant, but I never admitted it to my closest friends, although some family members may have guessed. I'm not alone in keeping my financial status in our relationship a secret. Despite our culture of over-sharing, where one's most intimate details can be found in a tweet or a Facebook update, very few women I encounter would be willing to advertise their breadwinning status.
I'm also not alone when it comes to earning more than my spouse in a dual-income family. The percentage of breadwinning wives has grown steadily since the late 1960s, hitting 29 per cent in 2003, according to a Statistics Canada report. The numbers are similar in the United States, where a Pew Research Center study found that 22 per cent of wives earned more than their spouses in 2007. A 2009 study, known as the Shriver Report, placed the percentage of female breadwinners at close to 40 per cent, though it included single parents.
As women outpace men in postsecondary education, the perceived traditional economic makeup of families will likely become an outdated social convention. We do ourselves a disservice by not acknowledging this trend, because the rise of breadwinning wives bodes well for women, for business and even for families.
“Most women don't realize they are in a growing minority of women who are juggling demanding jobs with managing a relationship according to changing gender norms,” observes Suzanne Doyle-Morris, a London, England-based academic and author of Female Breadwinners: How They Make Relationships Work and Why They are the Future of the Modern Workforce.
Many companies may not be aware of the changing landscape, either. Dr. Doyle-Morris warns that if companies want to stay competitive, they must work harder at retaining the female professionals in their ranks in order to entice the female talent of tomorrow.
“Companies need to adapt. Either these women [will leave]to start their own businesses or they will look for employers who are more in touch with this shift toward a female-centric economy and workplace,” she says. Although primary breadwinning women still earn less than primary breadwinning men on average, widespread acceptance of the changing economic landscape may force businesses to address the bane of professional women: the pay gap.
“The pay gap was generated in part with the assumption that any earnings women brought in were secondary, and that's no longer the case,” Dr. Doyle-Morris says.
Despite these obvious benefits, raising the topic of breadwinning wives remains a touchy subject for both genders.
“Feminist thought around women and households and work has always been that women should be equal to men and have the same opportunities. But when you have issues where women move into what is traditionally male domain, there is an uprooting of norms and ideologies,” says Andrea Doucet, a professor of sociology at Ontario’s Brock University and author of the award-winning book Do Men Mother?
Dr. Doucet, who is currently completing a book about breadwinning mothers and their male partners, feels that greater acceptance of this trend benefits men and women alike. For example, men may be entitled to parental leave in Canada but they are often questioned when they choose to take it. Even when the wife is the primary breadwinner, if the husband takes time off to care for a child, “people ask what he's doing,” she says.
Although male egos may get bruised in this scenario, men enjoy substantial economic and personal benefits by marrying another breadwinner, such as the opportunity to play a greater role in the family's dynamic.
Amie Brownbridge, a director in the financial services industry in Toronto, says there is a level of guilt associated with out-earning your spouse, but it can be a winning combination if you have a supportive partner.
“I do not judge my husband for not being a good provider. He's a great provider who does a lot of the extra support,” says Ms. Brownbridge, who grew up believing that she would not be economically dependent on her partner. Her status as primary breadwinner offers her not only financial independence but a sense of personal pride.
For women like Ms. Brownbridge, bent on conquering high financial and career goals, Dr. Doyle-Morris offers a piece of unconventional advice: Marry well. “What I mean by that is not the Jane Austen-esque version of marrying a wealthy man,” she says, “but marry a guy who cooks and thinks what you are doing is very cool.”
Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success.