New research suggests some men feel unhappy when their female partners get a pay rise.
A study published this week suggests the male breadwinner stereotype is perhaps more entrenched than we may have thought, even if it is not openly admitted to. Researchers at City University found that partners of women who get a pay rise are secretly unhappy that it means the pay differential between them is narrowing and that they get a “psychological kick” when they get a salary rise that increases the wage gap.
Women, on the other hand, do not experience the same unspoken unhappiness when their partner gets a pay rise. The study shows men who earn less than their wives have life dissatisfaction rates of 18%, compared to 11% in husbands who earn more or equal to their wives.
It is to be expected that social norms take a while to change and the male breadwinner norm is a longstanding one. I remember once being interviewed about the pay differential between my partner and me. I have always earned more than my partner for various reasons. It was an excruciating interview because the male interviewer insisted that my partner must feel emasculated by this, even if he didn’t say so, as if he knew my partner better than I did.
He asked about the impact of that dynamic on the long-term health of relationships and cited extreme examples. I replied that relationships are complex and that there are all sorts of things going on within them. The main aim of the interview seemed to be to show that I was in denial that my partner was deeply unhappy about not earning more. This new research supposedly suggests that the interviewer was right.
And yet, my partner has never shown a particular interest in his earnings – as long as he has enough to buy shoes. He’d rather be retired and living in Ibiza, going fishing. Moreover, the study only shows a 7% difference in satisfaction levels – a lot of reports seem to focus on negative interpretations of statistics rather than flipping it for the positive.
Nevertheless, social change is, as I said, slow and there are so many things that reinforce the male breadwinner stereotype and that feed into how people feel about themselves unconsciously. Those things are hard to shake because they exist in all parts of society. Even harder if there is not a positive alternative to the male breadwinner model for men and if the alternatives that exist are derided.
Covid-19 will wreak all sorts of social changes as will all the other changes taking place as a result of technological change. The latest ONS figures show a fall in part-time work and a rise in the numbers of women working full time. Moreover, the lowest paid – a group where women predominate – have been hardest hit by Covid and industries which employ the lowest paid workers have been hardest hit. How will we recover and what impact will this have? Nothing is certain. Things can look one way and then turn upside down a few weeks or months later.
Research this week, for instance, suggested self employment may fall in the short term, but if no jobs are available, will there be the same kind of increase we saw in 2008? In challenging times, social stereotypes may go out the window as families seek to survive. What is important is that we tackle the low-pay trap and enable people to find different ways out of it. Another report out this week shows how. Career progression should be a possibility for everyone.