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Female Breadwinners Bring Home the Bacon and Tension

MU professor examines female breadwinners’ experiences in nontraditional role

Nov. 24, 2009

Story Contact(s):
Kelsey Jackson, JacksonKN@missouri.edu, (573) 882-8353

COLUMBIA, Mo. – In nearly a third of U.S. households, women are the sole or main breadwinners for their families, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This number is increasing as many families experience layoffs of highly paid husbands during the economic recession. University of Missouri researcher Rebecca Meisenbach has found that women who take the role of lead breadwinner for their families experience both benefits and tensions.

“The female breadwinner is becoming increasingly more common and important in contemporary society,” said Meisenbach, who is assistant professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science. “They challenge and impact traditional middle and upper class views of familial relations, individual identities and organizational policies.”

In the qualitative study, Meisenbach interviewed 15 female breadwinners in professional occupations in the United States and had them describe their own experiences as breadwinners.  Meisenbach found that the female breadwinners described six essential experiences:  opportunities for control, independence, pressure and worry, valuing partner’s contributions, guilt and resentment, and ambition.

Societal standards still exist among white collar families in the United States, such as men are expected to be the breadwinners of married families, and women are expected to take care of the children, even if they are working. These societal expectations and gender norms can leave the female breadwinner with feelings of worry, pressure, guilt and resentment, Meisenbach said. For example, female breadwinners experience moments of guilt about care giving, pressure to perform at work and for their families, and occasional resentment at the demands of their multiple and atypical roles.

The negative effects for female breadwinners are balanced with opportunities for control, independence and ambition.  The study found that while some of the women did not want the control, they all did enjoy a sense of independence based on being the main source of income in a family. Most of these women also identify themselves as having strong ambition regarding career success and goal achievement.

Previous research has linked breadwinning to issues of masculinity, and this study supports those links by finding that an essential part of a married female breadwinner’s experience is expressing to her male partner and others how much she values his contributions to the household, Meisenbach said.

“Understanding how females experience the breadwinner role can lead to improvements in how female breadwinning couples communicate and deal with societal expectations,” Meisenbach said. “Also, many public policies are based on the model of males as breadwinners. Research on female breadwinners will encourage policies that recognize both male and female employees as breadwinners. As one potential outcome, awareness of the pressure to perform and sense of ambition that many female breadwinners experience may convince organizations that these highly motivated employees warrant changes in company policies.”

The study, “The female Breadwinner:  Phenomenological Experience and Gendered Identity in Work/Family Spaces,” was published online in November in Springer’s journal Sex Roles.

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