The Female Breadwinner Debate

Recently, Time magazine ran a feature article,  Women, Money and Power, about the rise of the female breadwinner in America, and why this phenomenon is good for everyone involved.

While at first glance I thought the article was going to simply discuss powerful female earners supporting lower-wage earning men, in truth the main point was focused more on the options available to modern families who are not solely dependent on the male for financial support in the way that the traditional American family was.  The article made a number of interesting points through several real-life examples, and made a strong case for the upsides of this economic shift.

What was even more interesting to me than the examples cited in the article was a related discussion that ensued on Facebook regarding the idea of the female breadwinner, particularly in the sense of what I initially thought the article was about – high income women supporting lower-income men.

There were several opinions expressed; it seems some women are quite comfortable with the idea of supporting a man who makes considerably less than them and choose not to limit their options in partners, while others have an expectation that a potential partner should be more or less of an equal contributor.  There was even a discussion of the perceived pitfalls of relationships in which the man doesn’t enjoy the same level of “success” (either monetary or intellectual) as the woman, and how some

of those men have a difficult time relating to the career priorities and successes of the woman, dooming the relationship to failure.

I’ll admit that I’m personally in the camp of equal contributing partner.  I’m very comfortable with the success I’ve achieved thus far in my career, and I’m proud of what I see the amazing women around me achieve.  But I’m not comfortable with a complete role reversal in which the female takes over as the head of household and the primary financial supporter of the couple/family.  If I’m working hard for my money, I’d like a partner who works just as hard and contributes a similar amount.

As a modern, successful woman, should I be more comfortable with the idea of supporting someone?

The statistics are telling.  The percentage of women with college degrees in comparison to their male counterparts is increasing; the Time article cited that currently 60% of college students are women, and they now earn the majority of masters and doctorate degrees.    With that, it stands to reason that more and more women are or will be rising to higher power and earning positions within companies around the country and the world.  With this shift, will it become more necessary for a successful single woman to become comfortable with the idea of supporting a man who perhaps has not achieved the same level of success as her?  Or is it reasonable to still expect and hope for a more equal partner?

What do you think?

Photo credit iStockphoto


About the Author

Jennifer Payne

Jennifer Payne is a 20+ year human resources leader with a focus on researching, developing, and implementing talent management programs. She is a believer in lifelong learning and self-development who strives to stay current in HR trends, technology, best practices, and the future of work by sharing knowledge with and learning from HR colleagues and thought leaders across the country and throughout the world through writing, speaking, and involvement in various industry conferences and events.  She is one of the co-founders of Women of HR, and is currently the Editor of the site. You can connect with her on Twitter...



Having been in relationships where I was the breadwinner, I guess I can only hope that there are guys out there that can atleast do their fair share and contribute more to the relationship and family. I really don’t mind if a man doesn’t make as much as I do, I don’t even really mind if he isn’t as ambitious as I am, (in the business world.) I just want a partner that will watch the kids, maybe cook dinner, clean the house etc., while I’m working. Unfortionately, in a lot of relationships where the woman is the breadwinner, most of the ‘woman’s work’ still seems to fall on our shoulders, after we get off of work. I’m sure this isn’t true in all cases and that there are some guys out there that are willing to be Mr. Mom, instead of playing the rat race, but a lot of men just don’t do their fair share.

As for your comment about the fact that women seem to be more ambitious about looking for a career since far more women are going to college than men, I have definately noticed it myself. I just finished up school just a few years ago, and there was definately a lot more women on campus than men! Many of my classes were predomenantly female, except for some of the computer and math classes. And looking back, it was always mostly women that tried the hardest, got engaged, and academically excelled. Most of the men, just did enough, it seemed, to get by. I remember pulling all nighters or all dayers, studying for a final or doing some project before it was do, with several of my classemates, in the library. We’d spend hours, studying, quizzing each other. There would maybe be one guy there out of maybe 6 women, and the guy(s) would always be the first to leave. I don’t know. Sometimes I think men, just expect something will just be given to them. I do notice a lot of guys aren’t really engaged in much of anything except maybe watching sports and playing video games. I know so many women, friends and family, that went to college, got a degree or more, found good careers, while many of my male friends and family are just looking for any job they can get. Many of my young female friends and family are with men that are less educated and makes less than they do. Like someone else posted, it seems a lot of the successful well educated men that make as much as we do or more are going after women, that make substantially less than they do and more than likely only have high school degree. It’s almost as if we don’t even have a choice but to date a guy that makes less or just remain single. (I really do think this is part of the reason why less people are getting married and more women are just remaining single.) Things really are changing. I do really believe, that women will become the majority of breadwinners in the comming years.

As a side note, there are some guys that have been able to do a lot without a college degree. I have an uncle that does contruction, is a relator, flips houses, rents out houses, etc, and does very well for himself. So I don’t think you necessarily need a college degree to be successful.


Downsides to being a female breadwinner.
Child Support.

Child#1 with my ex-husband.
Made less than me. He decided to fake an injury, file a work comp claim (which dished him out $100,000) and then went on state assistance after I left him, filing for child support.

Child#2 – 6 years later with boyfriend#2.
Made less than me. He also decided to quit his job and stop working once I got pregnant, and file state assistance.

Child#3 – 6 years after that with a coworker.
Makes less than me. Is now talking about quitting his job like the other 2 dads did. Won’t help out with any bills for baby. Is resentful and dumps me every time we have a payday at work. Calls me fat, slut, and other names to remind me how mad he is that I make more money than him.

Find a guy that makes equal money.
Don’t be like me. .


My husband has been a stay-at-home Dad for more than 7 years. I often tell people that we each play to our strengths. In my ideal world, I would work part-time and be home with my kids more than I am now, but I really don’t think I have the patience to be happy as a full time stay-at-home parent. He does.

Sure, there our days that I resent him for being at home when I am at work, and every day I wish we had a bigger bank account, but that doesn’t mean I want him to get a job and put our three children in day care. (Which, incidentally, would be unlikely to help our bank account.) He is doing important work, it is hard work, and it absolutely contributes to the success of our family. I think it’s a sad statement on our culture that I even feel the need to assert that; it should be understood.

Being the breadwinner is stressful and I’ve had to adapt to it. Seven years ago I took a new job knowing that it would have to support all three (now five) of us, not just me. It was scary, but I still have that job and we all lived through it. I’m proud of my role in our family and I’m proud of (and extremely thankful for) my husband in his role. I would never say that I “settled,” but of course – I never married him for his earning potential anyway. I married for crazy love.

The main down side, in my experience, is that I can’t hop off the earning track to follow a dream or start my own business, as it seems many professional women with an earning spouse do these days. I have to weigh every decision against the backdrop of my family’s bills, but you know what? So have most men for . . . well, ever, in our culture. That’s what being an adult is about.

Am I the only one

Hi Jennifer – I can relate to this in a few ways. I currently earn more than my husband and I have a higher degree (though we both went to college.) Honestly since I did the work and followed the path to a higher degree I feel like it should be no surprise that I earn more.

I am a 30-something and still have many single friends, all of whom are very successful women who struggle finding a comparable mate. All of them want a husband who earns close to what they do, or is at least “as successful” and driven as they are. They all make very good money and are very independent. The men who make the same, and are “as driven” seem to want a more dependent doting spouse – so the men of their career caliber want women who also make them feel like the strong driven successful man. The men who are fine with an independent woman are seemingly “not manly” enough for my friends. Is this a catch 22?? If times are changing why can’t more of us change with them?

I was raised by parents who made about the same income, and after I was 5 had their own business. Mom did most of the cooking, dad most of the cleaning and each did their own laundry. We actually went grocery shopping together on Friday nights. My mom balanced the budget and my dad fixed the broken things. We hired people to take care of the yard and as soon as I was old enough I had my own set of chores. We were, a family and a team and it all worked out.

I never looked for a husband under the terms of looking for a “provider” or caring that much about what he earned. Yes I value hard work and drive, but cared more that my future spouse not expect me to be his mother and than all adults should be perfectly capable of cooking and cleaning up after themselves. I never spent a lot of time thinking about my future husband until I dated someone for over 3 years at the age of 22. I ended this relationship after 4 years when I stopped long enough one day to realize I was working hard while in college, taking care of my academic goals, working part time, taking care of my needs as a human AND helping him in his part time business, entertaining him, cooking for him and (egad) for a short time did his laundry. I never expected much back somehow, I just kept going. After I realized this I could not just “keep going” and focused back on my goals.

When I was younger I suppose I just assumed I would date and one day enjoy someone enough to want to marry them and there you go. Planing was all about my career, where I was going and who I wanted to be… sometimes it was just about getting through a busy stressful day. I like working, if my husband made more money I would enjoy being able to afford to hire someone to clean the house and do the laundry etc, but for now we have to get it all done ourselves. I do not resent him, control his spending or feel like he is letting me down. I just wanted a partner, someone I liked being with.

When it comes to balance I see the value of yin and yang – but who says it has to be in the 1950’s Cleaver Family way – historically this has not always been the only option! Once upon a time we lived in villages and we had all sorts of roles based on who was good at what. Without powerful driven women like Amelia Erhart, Marie Curie, Joan of Ark, Margret Thatcher… where would we be?

Jennifer Payne

Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read and comment on my post. I appreciate all of your comments and opinions and respect what each of you has said.

This is, indeed, a very personal subject and from the varying responses represented here something people have very different opinions about.

I think what bothers me the most about the trend is not the idea of having a partner that doesn’t match your earnings dollar for dollar, but rather that an increasing percentage of women are attaining college degrees compared to their male counterparts. I think that more so than the financial aspect of this debate is a question of ambition; if fewer males are obtaining college degrees, does that mean that more are settling for “jobs” instead of the “careers” that college degrees may open up to them? I realize that different industries may compensate less for the same level of achievement; what I don’t like is the idea of supporting someone who simply has a job and little ambition. I suppose I assume that financial compensation is a reflection of that.

Full disclosure: I am not married and have never been. My views are based strictly on observation of those around me. And I do understand that things change throughout the course of a relationship. When it comes to raising children, I do not doubt that it is hard work, and the choices a couple makes at that time should be based on what is best for their family.

Again I appreciate the comments and feedback!

Andrea Ballard

Hi Jennifer,

What jumps out at me when I read “If I’m working hard for my money, I’d like a partner who works just as hard and contributes a similar amount” is the assumption that hard work is tied to greater earnings. In my own experience, that hasn’t always been true.

I’ve had a non-profit job where I worked like crazy and didn’t make very much. Teachers, social workers, and some creative professions may not earn as much as lawyers and financial analysts.

The person earning more in the relationship is not necessarily working harder. Each person brings different skills and gifts to the relationship. Some are financial, others are not. The people inside the relationship know what is important to each of them.

Whether it’s two people making the same amount, or one more than the other, the fact is, if you’re in a relationship for a very long time, things are likely to change anyway. Focus on the person and what type of human being they are instead.

Corey Feldman

I can’t say I agree. Mostly because I think being a stay at home parent is work, and hard work at that. If my wife had greater earning potential I would gladly stay at home with the kids, and/or would be willing to make career sacrifices for childrearing. I guess that is because I find being a parent more rewarding that HR.

Jenny Garrett

Great post Jennifer. Thanks for bring this important subject to the forefront. Although this is an intensely personal subject, it needs to be discussed in order for women to own their success and pride as being female breadwinners. Instead it is often the case that they keep the fact that they are breadwinner in the closet and as such feel resentment and often guilt about their role. I have a blog dedicated to the subject and a forthcoming book, outon the 28th June 2012 entitled Rocking Your Role, which is a ‘how to’ guide to success for female breadwinners which I know will be an invaluable guide.


I am perfectly okay with my partner earning less than I do, and maybe that’s a rare thing now, but I don’t think it should be a big deal. If men are fine with having a wife who stays at home or earns less, why can’t women be the same? I don’t think the potential negatives (alimony if divorced, for example) outweighs the positives of two people who are perfect for each other both in careers they enjoy without having to worry about who earns more.

My boyfriend wants to be a stay-at-home dad one day, and I know that a lot of people (even those in his family) who have trouble coming to terms with the fact that it’s a perfectly acceptable position, albeit non-traditional. But just as it’s now acceptable for women to earn as much as their husbands, I think with time more and more people will be okay with wives who earn more than their husbands.

That’s not to say that any particular woman should force themselves to accept partners who earn less than they do, because there are many other reasons why they might want equal partners (or ones who earn more), like the one you mentioned in your article. I, for one, am really competitive and would be jealous if my partner earned more than I did, but that’s my personality. It should still be a personal choice; I just think that women (and men too) shouldn’t reject someone just because “it’s strange” or “it’s never been this way before.”

Jennifer Payne

Hi Kim,
Good point about the divorce scenario. Although that certainly is relevant for both men and women, historically that hasn’t been something most women have had to think about. I’ve seen situations where that has come into play for the woman, and it wasn’t a pleasant thing to go through.

Thanks for reading and for the comments!

Kimberly Roden

Hi Jennifer, I’m in your camp with this one. I’ve already been there where I had someone who I didn’t necessarily support but earned less than I did. I feel that it’s because of the way I was raised with a mom who stayed home and a dad who worked and paid the bills. However, my thinking when I got married was that we could do it all — work and raise a family. I did want a partner. I was tired of all of the pressures on me — earnings and being a mom. So, no way in hell do I want to be with someone who I support.

As far as the statistics that are rising with single women who are settling to support a man — doesn’t mean we have to be a statistic.

Oh and as an aside, although no one wants to think about divorce when you get married, how can we not? Something to consider is that if there is a divorce and the woman is the breadwinner, those spousal support (alimony) payments will be painful!

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