When Erin first got together with her boyfriend, they both worked in minimum wage jobs. She was a student working part-time in customer service, while he worked as a chef. In 2020, she got what she refers to as her first “big girl” job in local government, and was catapulted up the career ladder. At 27, Erin now earns significantly more than her partner.
“When I got the phone call to say I had got the job, we immediately spoke about the salary,” says Erin, who lives in Yorkshire, UK. “I asked if the fact that I was earning more was going to make him feel bad. He said that yes, he likes it when he can do things for me that I can’t afford to do, because it makes him feel like he’s taking care of me. But he doesn’t feel emasculated by my higher pay. He just wants me to be happy.”
Although it’s not unusual for women to out-earn their partners, Erin remains in the minority as a female breadwinner. In the UK, only around 26% of women were making more money than their partner in 2019, and in the US this was around 30% – hardly surprising, as working women still earn 16% less than men on average.
That’s why Erin, and many women in heterosexual relationships like her, feel the need to have conversations about how their partner feels about their higher earning-power, and protect them from any negative emotions or feelings of emasculation – talks they likely wouldn’t feel the need to have if the situation were reversed.
Women’s earning power may have surged in many instances, yet attitudes towards female breadwinners still lag behind. As well as facing external judgement, women who out-earn their partners still often shoulder the majority of traditionally ‘female’ labour, such as housework and childcare, leaving them chronically overworked, under pressure and fighting to protect their partnership against negative emotions and perceptions.
All this can take its toll – research shows that heterosexual marriages with a female breadwinner are more likely to end in divorce. But experts point out that this doesn’t have to be the case.
The domestic burden of women breadwinners
Historically, men have almost always out-earned their female partners. Women, often entirely excluded from the workforce, tended to instead shoulder the majority of domestic labour, including housework and childrearing.
But evidence suggests that since women have entered the workforce en masse, the imbalance in domestic duties hasn’t really been redressed – even when women make more money than their partners.