Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Never the earner, always the bride: How male breadwinners view women in the workplace

Across a series of studies, a new article demonstrates that married men who have a more traditional 'breadwinner role' at home tend to have more negative views on women in the workplace.

Across their studies, Sreedhari Desai, Dolly Chugh and Arthur Brief defined traditional marriages as those where the wife was not employed, contrasted with couples that were dual-earning.  Firstly they employed data from US national surveys. In the first data set - 282 married men in 1996 - those in more traditional marriages showed some discomfort with a gender-mixed workplace, being more likely to disagree with statements such as 'if a mother chooses to work, it doesn't hurt the child.' Does this abstract opinion dissolve when it meets the reality of the workplace? The second dataset from a 2002 survey suggests it does not, as of the 89 men analysed, traditionalists were less likely to see their workplace as running smoothly when it had a higher composition of women.

Turning to experimental work, Desai's team showed that compared to those in a dual-earning marriage, traditionally married undergraduate students rated recruitment literature intended to attract job applicants as less effective when it contained cues of high female involvement in the company, such as all-female (vs all-male) recruiter names and an equal opportunity reference that included the note 'For example, representation of women on our board of directors far exceeds the average representation of women in Fortune 500 companies.'

The next experiment found managers just as susceptible; when traditionally married, managers were less likely to recommend a fictional candidate for an MBA program if they were a woman. This is noteworthy because managers wield substantial influence, Interestingly, dual earners as a group gave higher ratings to the female than the male applicant.

Returning to survey data, the researchers were able to gather data across two data points of the British Household Panel Survey. 304 men were surveyed in 1991 prior to marriage, and 1993 following marriage, using the same scale as study one used on attitude to women in the workplace. Desai's team didn't find these attitudes to predict the marriage structure men ended up in - other factors appear to have more real influence, with older and more educated men more likely to end up in one-income marriages (this may reflect opportunity rather than preference). But the type of marriage did affect subsequent attitudes to women at work, with a traditional set-up leading to less sympathy for women being represented in the workplace.

This last study gives the strongest evidence of causality in this relationship. So why might marriage be shaping these attitudes? Status construction theory suggests that we tend to use our own social conditions to extrapolate how the world works more generally. If every day you engage in work duties while your wife focuses on home life, not only are you incentivised to believe that this is a sensible division of labour, but increasingly it will seem true to you, as your differential experiences give you more work-related resources such as contacts, influence, knowledge and competence. This can lead to the false conclusion that 'men are just more suited to work.'

Desai emphasises that the bulk of their studies don't speak to this causality argument and that more research is needed. Also, we should bear in mind that some of the survey data is now fairly odl, and attitudes may have shifted somewhat. However, the repeated finding is clear: men in traditional marriages have a smaller appetite for women-heavy workforces. The researchers conclude that as well as seeking a diverse workforce, where traditional views do not crowd out other perspectives, attention could be given to "the challenging psychological position that men in traditional marriages face when alternating between their two daily realities", and find ways to illustrate to these people that their personal life decisions may be driving their workplace attitudes, possibly in an unconscious fashion.

ResearchBlogging.orgDesai, S., Chugh, D., & Brief, A. (2014). The Implications of Marriage Structure for Men's Workplace Attitudes, Beliefs, and Behaviors toward Women Administrative Science Quarterly DOI: 10.1177/0001839214528704

Further reading:

Bolzendahl, C. I., and Myers, D. J (2004). Feminist attitudes and support for gender equality: Opinion change in women and men, 1974–1998. Social Forces, 83: 759–789.


  1. This chimes with Desai's earlier research on the subject. I wrote about it in an evidence-based piece on diversity called "Shaking the Gender Agenda." An extract:

    It stands to reason that if you’re keen to promote women, employees who are in hiring positions need to have a positive regard for women’s capabilities. A robust study[vii] published in 2012 of 718 married male participants found that employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavourably, (b) perceive that organisations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organisations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.
    Thinking practically, this could mean looking at your organisation’s approach to who interviews candidates for a job. For instance, a married senior male manager whose wife doesn’t work may be consciously or unconsciously biased against hiring a woman. To avoid capable women being missed from shortlists or passed over for the job in this instance, a mixed panel (in more ways than on the usual dimensions) could be significant.
    On the flipside, the research points to ‘does your wife work?’ being a significant question to put to male candidates at job interview – especially if your organisation has a poor reputation around recruiting and promoting women, that it wants to shed. We know that might have employment lawyers squirming in their seats, although we’re not aware of any discrimination cases where a male candidate has taken offence at such a question.

    The full piece is here: See http://talentkeepers.co.uk/shaking-the-gender-agenda/

  2. Thanks Jessica. Fascinating stuff!
    I would disagree on posing that 'does your wife work' question, as I can't see a strong enough claim to justify seeking that information and making conclusions upon it. The information being sought isn't a feature of the candidate in any way, and could only be at best an indirect indicator of a possible attitude. If we're interested in the attitude, we should find ways to directly assess that - for example, by including a component of the interview on discussing comfort in being managed by a woman, if that was a critical consideration for the role.

    More generally, I think that measures such as raising awareness and - as you touch on - broader aims to ensure diversity (especially in terms of balance on employment panels) are good approaches.


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