Who Should Bring Home the Bacon?

03/20/2015 06:28 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015
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Many argue that the era of the husband as the breadwinner is a thing of the past.

Recent trends support this theory, showing more women in managerial positions (1); wives earning more than their husbands in nearly a third of American dual-income households (2); and childless women between the ages of 22 and 30 earning more than their male colleagues in many of the largest cities.(3)

Despite the changes and progress for women in the United States, a recent study I did with colleagues finds that many men and women still believe in traditional gender roles and prefer the husband to be the primary breadwinner.

In our paper, "Who Should Bring Home the Bacon? How Deterministic Views of Gender Constrain Spousal Wage Preferences," I and my co-authors examine whether or not individuals have internalized the progress of women in the U.S. and question whether or not previously socialized beliefs about gender-appropriate roles have really changed much.

While previous studies have examined gender roles, our paper looks beyond shifting social level metrics to determine if individuals have embraced the gender changes in society and how their attitudes influence their own preferences and behaviors.

Our study finds that while many women strive to earn as much as possible, they often still prefer their spouses to make more money. And the higher a woman's aspirations for her own wages, the more she prefers a husband who will out-earn her. In a complementary fashion, most men prefer their wives make less than they do.

What explained this seemingly antiquated notion was a new concept we developed called gender determinism. Gender determinism is the extent to which someone believes gender is an important social category -- that someone's gender matters in dictate behaviors and attributes of an individual. We find that the higher someone's gender determinism (meaning a strong belief that gender matters in determining someone's abilities), the more that person prefers the husband to be the primary breadwinner and the wife to make relatively less money. Moreover, those women who embrace gender determinism are more likely to work from home, which, on average, results in lower wages.

Although our national sample of course showed that some people were more likely to embrace gender role changes than others, there were no systematic differences across various demographic groups. That is, contrary to some popular beliefs, millennials are no more gender-blind than other groups. Regardless of generation, geographic region or family history, we found that the higher individuals ranked on the gender difference scale, the more a wage gap preference increased.

In nascent research, we are finding that people see jobs in gendered ways -- that there are "male" jobs and "female" jobs. We are currently exploring whether those with strong beliefs in gender determinism may select personnel in ways that conform to traditional gender roles, recruit women for administrative support positions while promoting men to positions of power.

Interestingly, these beliefs about gender can be altered --at least in the short term. When we primed people with commercials displaying gender incongruent roles (men doing laundry and women going to work), viewers rated lower on the gender determinism scale. Our commercial experiment shows the power of advertisers to activate recessive beliefs. Companies can influence individual awareness by portraying role models in gender incongruent activities. Even though things haven't really changed much for the average participant in our studies, that doesn't mean they can't.

With a belief that research should enhance individual skills and influence organizational policy, I encourage companies to consider marketing strategies that showcase and promote the progress of women in the workforce. The more role models we have of women in positions of power and earning, the more likely traditional gender roles will broaden in what is acceptable behavior, freeing constraints on both genders. Moreover, companies should be aware of "gender ghettos" in the workplace -- when certain positions or assignments are primarily filled with either one gender or the other. Not only could this be evidence of gender bias, but can also help promote a narrow view of what is appropriate role behavior, constraining both genders.

(1) BLS (2013a). Women in the labor force: A databook. Current Population Survey (Vol. 2013). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

(2) BLS (2013b). Highlights of women's earnings in 2012. BLS report 1045, October 2013. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

(3) Luscombe, B. "Workplace salaries: At last, women on top." Time. 2010.