The Globe’s bimonthly report on research from business schools.
The notion of the “family breadwinner” has undergone seismic changes of over the past 50 years as the number of Canadian women joining the work force has steadily surged and dual-income households have become the norm.
To date, much of the research into this social shift has focused on how it is has affected modern families and how spouses – women in particular – divide their earnings and balance responsibilities between work and home.
Erin Reid, associate professor of human resources and management at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton, shakes up that approach with a new study that examines the male perspective – namely, how men are making sense of who they are in relation to their work, given their wives’ careers.
“This study asks, in a nutshell, how men’s ideas about themselves as professionals are shaped by their ideas about their relationship to their wife and her career, and, how do men’s self-definitions in turn shape how they relate to their work,” says Dr. Reid in an e-mail.
She found that while some men fall back on the classic identity of a “breadwinner,” others have adopted a thoroughly modern identity of what she terms the “breadsharer.”
The study defines a breadwinner in the traditional sense – that is, a man who sees himself as the primary earner in a family. Based on a series of interviews with men in heterosexual relationships and employed at a global strategy consulting firm, the study found that those who identified as breadwinners tend to be totally devoted to their work, while devaluing their wives’ financial contributions to the household even when the women appeared to be quite financially successful.
The breadsharer, by comparison, embraces the idea of each partner pursuing his or her own work and family goals. Study participants who identified as breadsharers spoke at length about how important their wives’ work is, how well it is regarded by others, and of their wives’ many career accomplishments.
Ultimately, whether a man identifies as a breadwinner or breadsharer has more to do with the prestige he gives to his wife’s work than her actual earnings or work hours, the study suggests.
It was a finding that surprised Dr. Reid.
“When we talk about dual-career or dual-earner couples, the conversation tends to focus on who brings home the most money, or who works what kind of hours. The fact that social status for these well-paid professionals seems to be more important than time or money in shaping relationships and negotiations between spouses seems to be new,” she says.
Dr. Reid says the research offers some important insight for both couples and the companies that employ them. Breadsharers, for instance, are more open to leaving their jobs to support their wife’s career than men who identify as breadwinners.
“So, firms need to work hard to retain these employees [breadsharers]. This is likely to involve scaling back on demands for total commitment to work,” she says.
The study was published in Gender, Work & Organization.
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