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Primary Breadwinners Should Be Men, Majority of Americans Say

March 18, 2015 – Despite the great strides women have made in the workforce over the past few decades, Georgetown research reveals that the majority of American men and women across all ages and races still prefer men to be the primary breadwinner.

Catherine Tinsley, professor of management and director of Georgetown’s Women’s Leadership Initiative at the McDonough School of Business, explains how behavioral shifts in society tend to happen first with attitudinal shifts taking a lot longer as people wrestle with deep-rooted beliefs.

ScienceDirect published Tinsley’s research earlier this month.

How do people view breadwinners?

We were surprised that the majority still wanted the man to be the breadwinner, implying our society’s attitude as a whole hasn’t shifted much on this issue. We also found women high on gender determinism (the idea that one gender does some things better than the other gender) made real-life work choices that lowered their wages. The higher a woman’s gender determinism, the more likely she was to work from home, and when we controlled for the number of hours worked, education level and type of job, we found working from home lowered women’s wages.

How can society as a whole become more equitable?

Exposure to role models that are engaging in behavior generally associated with the opposite sex can help to attenuate gender determinism. For example, in our research, when we showed participants commercials selling laundry detergent with a man folding the laundry, we were able to lower people’s level of gender determinism immediately afterward, but of course we don’t yet know how long that effect will last.

Assuming that exposure to role models is important, I would love to see more TV shows with women as the primary breadwinner. We have plenty of TV shows depicting working women and even working mothers, but not with women as the family’s primary breadwinner.

How do you think women can best advance in their careers?

Women definitely should highlight their competency at work, showing how their behavior in the workplace has been productive. If they are faced with someone high in gender determinism, why not play up on the stereotypes they hold? Send signals projecting “I’m such a team player because I’m so cooperative, good at communication and negotiation and listening to people and being there for others.”

So, women should play into those stereotypes?

I want to make a distinction between what you do when you’re in your 20s and 30s and don’t have very much power and don’t typically have a real capacity to change things, and what you should be doing in your 40s, 50s and 60s when you do have power and you possibly have the capacity to change people’s stereotypes and implicit beliefs.

It would be really great for women to be open about how wonderful it is to be the primary breadwinner and how their husbands take care of the kids. Once women have achieved a certain level, it’s almost incumbent upon them to try to be as honest as possible about their situation in order to break as many stereotypes as possible.

What do you think of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In?

Sandberg’s advice “don’t check out too early” is well-founded. She’s trying to battle against some of that gender determinism we’re seeing. In our research, we were shocked that, as a whole, people in their 20s have just as much gender determinism as people in their 40s.

Where I am critical of Sandberg’s book is that it emphasizes the prescriptions of what women should do without acknowledging the obstacles, organizational barriers and implicit beliefs still out there.

What does all this mean for the future?

Our research shows that traditional gender roles are surprisingly robust, even in the face of changing behaviors as to who the primary breadwinner could be across households.

Yet, not everyone espouses strong beliefs about the importance of gender. Some people think gender defines little about a person’s character or behaviors. These people may be early adopters of beliefs that allow for an expanding gender role for both men and women. My take is that this is the trend, and more discussion of the real-life dynamics of women engaging in traditionally “male” behaviors like being primary breadwinners should accelerate progress.