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Women Breadwinners Are 'Proud' But Keep Financial Role in Household Private

Study also finds female breadwinners and partners often don't discuss women's lead financial role; Women breadwinners still retain majority of home and childcare responsibilities.

Despite the booming number of women serving as household breadwinners, a new study of mid-to-senior level businesswomen found that although these women are "proud" of this role, most keep it hidden from family, friends, and employers.

The study also showed that women often take on this role over time without an explicit discussion with their partners, and still contribute to a majority of home and childcare duties.

The research is based on an online survey of more than 460 businesswomen who attended the Simmons Leadership Conference in Boston last year. The study was conducted by the Center for Gender in Organizations (CGO) at the Simmons School of Management, and sought to understand the impact of breadwinning and caregiving roles on the lives of women, how these roles are negotiated, and with whom they are shared.

Study authors say the results show the challenge that women face in taking on an unconventional role in the face of cultural pressure to maintain the roles women and men are still expected to play in society.

"Our research shows the degree to which women and men have fixed roles in American culture, and that if you don't follow these roles, you are potentially the subject of misunderstanding and even ridicule," said co-author Mary Shapiro, a professor of practice at the Simmons School of Management. "In many ways, it signals how society still expects women to maintain the traditional and subordinate role to men in their earnings and work life."

According to the study, which drew from a sample of mostly white middle-class women, 59% considered themselves to be the primary financial contributors (PFC) of their household, contributing 88% on average of the household income; female non-PFCs contributed 44% on average.

When asked why they kept their financial role private, both PFCs and non-PFCs strongly indicated that they did not feel it was "anyone's business to know." PFCs also said they kept this status private "out of a desire to not embarrass their non-PFC partner."

The study also found that breadwinning women continue to retain their roles in the home, significantly contributing to home- and child-care:

  • 80% of PFCs said they contributed to all homecare, or at least equal to or more than that of their partner
  • 75% of PFCs said they contributed to all childcare, or at least equal to or more than that of their partner

Finally, women were found to keep their careers on the fast track despite their increased responsibilities as breadwinners. Both PFCs and non-PFCs surveyed strongly denied turning down promotions, taking on lesser roles, and/or maintaining low profiles at work.

Study authors recommend female breadwinners vocalize their dual roles with their partners and in their organizations, to negotiate and obtain better support. They also recommend that organizations recognize the multiple roles women and men hold, and adjust work expectations and policies to be more accommodating, as a way to increase their attractiveness to a wider pool of potential workers.

"Because many women and men are not challenging conventional roles publicly, many organizations continue to offer policies and/or HR benefits that are not gender neutral and that do not reflect the changing and varied social roles many men and women are playing," Shapiro said.

The survey is part of the ongoing research conducted by the CGO at the Simmons School of Management, to analyze workplace and cultural practices that impede the advancement of women, as well as to explore and participate in the creation of new knowledge that translates into organizational practices.

» Download the full report (pdf)

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Would you like one of the study's authors to come speak to your organization on this topic? If so, please contact Elisa van Dam at Elisa.vanDam@simmons.edu or 617-521-3869. Learn more about other speakers and workshops on our website.

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