How female breadwinners (really) make it work
Outdated gender roles persist both at home and in the office. Here’s how some women beat the odds.
Sasha Yablonovsky tells her husband how much she appreciates him every day. Gratitude is key to making the whole enterprise work, she says. It’s a practice that’s ingrained in her life, just like making coffee or brushing her teeth each morning. But there’s a twist: She’s often halfway across the country when she does it. As an executive vice president at CareerBuilder and the family breadwinner, Yablonovsky travels for work Monday through Thursday while her husband, Michael Barnett, takes care of their two children as he prepares to launch a new software company from their Newton home.
She misses bedtime. She misses school drop-off.
“I feel guilty almost every day, putting all that strain on him,” she says.
About two years ago, that guilt threatened to upend their marriage. Yablonovsky would micromanage from afar, Barnett says, pestering him about small household details, such as what the kids ate. He would get frustrated, feeling nagged. Both felt taken for granted, too tired to show appreciation for each other.
“Fight, scream, cry, express needs. Rinse and repeat for years,” Yablonovsky recalls. At one point, they contemplated separating. “But then a light bulb went off,” she says. “Eventually it clicked: This is what my [husband] needs, and it’s extra effort for me, but I’ll deliver.”
Now Barnett makes an effort to tell his wife how proud and grateful he is that she works hard so he can launch his business. Without her income, he wouldn’t be able to do it.
“It’s because of her that I probably took this leap. She pushed me to make it happen, through her trust,” he says.
“I don’t think he’s less of a man because he doesn’t have earnings,” Yablonovsky says. “If anything, he’s more of a man and more of a partner to my family and me.”
Their arrangement allows her career to flourish — but their happy equilibrium is somewhat rare. As more women out-earn their male spouses, research shows that both partners are uneasy about it. Meanwhile, gender roles persist at work and at home. How do women like Yablonovsky — mothers, wives, and breadwinners — make it work?
First, some numbers: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among families where both spouses work, 29 percent of wives earned more than their husbands in 2015, up from 18 percent in 1987. But a 2018 Census report casts doubt on how comfortable couples are with that setup. According to the report, “Manning Up and Womaning Down,” gender-influenced social norms seem to affect how couples report their incomes. When the woman in a couple earns more, the couple tends to say she makes less than she does, while they say the man makes more than the reality. The census paper compared earnings reported for husbands and wives in its Current Population Survey against what was reported in their IRS tax filings. A 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research report struck a more ominous tone, noting that when the wife earns more than her husband, couples are less satisfied with their marriage and more likely to divorce.
High-ranking, heterosexual married women in various industries who were interviewed for this article have themselves seen that men are still subjected to outmoded work-family policies. Employers might understand if a female employee needs to bolt from work to fetch a sick child but might look askance if a man got an unexpected call from the school nurse. And many companies still make it culturally awkward or impossible for men to request benefits such as paternity leave.
Men are reluctant to ask for flexible work arrangements or to scale back their careers, says Jane Steinmetz, Boston office managing principal of accounting firm Ernst & Young, who is also the sole breadwinner in her family. And so the burden to take time off to raise a family reflexively falls on women.
A 2013 Pew Research Center study reported that, among parents with at least some work experience, mothers with children under 18 were approximately three times as likely as fathers to say that being a working parent made it harder for them to advance in their job or career.
“How can we expect women to excel in their careers when, if you look into any employer, you find likely a small percentage of men have asked for a flexible arrangement or a part-time schedule?” she asks. “How can women advance if men haven’t taken the offramp or pulled back on the throttle, the way women are told they should?”
Breadwinning women interviewed for this story cited many factors that helped their marriages succeed: lack of ego, a gender-blind philosophy about household tasks, and the desire to put family above career. Their spouses are part of their arsenal, just as vital as a degree or professional training. (This isn’t to say that a successful woman has to be married — far from it.) But if they choose to marry, and if there’s a secret, it seems to be that they view marriage not just as an emotional union, but as a strategic partnership. Jane Steinmetz’s husband, John Steinmetz, eventually quit his job as a partner at a law firm to care for their four children when the couple’s nanny left. It made sense: Jane earned more money than he did. She works up to 60 hours per week while John handles the majority of household tasks. (She still does the laundry.) Occasionally, acquaintances seem surprised by the role reversal.
“You go to a party, and instantly, people are like, ‘So, what do you do? Hey, John, where are you practicing now?’ He says, ‘As a matter of fact, Jane works, and I stay home with the kids.’ It doesn’t faze him,” Jane Steinmetz says. “He loves bragging about everything I’m doing, if anyone wants to listen.”
Alison Quirk, a corporate director at asset management company Legg Mason and a senior adviser at public relations firm Weber Shandwick in Boston, has also encountered raised eyebrows over her breadwinner status. Her husband, Frank Quirk, who retired early to focus on running the household and caring for their three children, was never offended by the reactions — but she was. A male co-worker once commented to her about a female colleague whose husband didn’t work, flabbergasted that he was a full-time parent.
“He said, ‘Her husband stays home, and she’s the only breadwinner! I don’t get that! What does he ‘do’ all day?’ ” Alison Quirk remembers. “I’d never asked him what his wife does all day, and nobody ever would.” The double standard astounded her.
But some women struggle with the burden of being a primary breadwinner while also coping with traditional household tasks, taking on the lion’s share of work at home and in the office, even in otherwise happy marriages. Randi Bussin, a Belmont-based executive coach for high-earning women, says female clients tell her they feel handcuffed by high-paying jobs and an expensive lifestyle, convinced they can’t leave their jobs because their husbands don’t make enough money. Many of these women earn more than $300,000 per year, but they’re miserable. They feel guilty over not spending time with their kids — and they’re resentful that their husbands get to spend more time with them. But admitting it is taboo.
“Nobody talks about this,” Bussin says.
There are practical concerns inherent in being a high earner that are still off-limits to discuss: Who will really take the call when a kid gets sick? Who does the grocery shopping? Who makes the household engine run — and who will support your career ambitions, too? They’re fundamental compatibility questions that get brushed under the rug. Part of the problem is that law and business schools aren’t adequately raising these very real issues with students, Bussin says.
“They get [students] on the fast-track programs [to work for] the best in world. McKinsey. Bain. Top law firms. Big Four accounting firms. But how are you going to make this work?” she asks.
Often, she says, women enter into marriages with men who might possess strict views on gender roles — content to have a breadwinning wife but also expecting her to shoulder household tasks — and hope that things will evolve.
“Sometimes women think, ‘We can change the guy.’ They meet a man who isn’t a go-getter, but they’re enamored, maybe [the women are] older, and they’ll make it work. But in reality, the guy is pretty passive. I’ve had women clients say they would prefer to get divorced but they can’t because it would cost them money,” she says.
Recently, a high-earning woman consulted her, desperate to scale back. Yet she didn’t think she could, because she supported the family, Bussin says.
“[But] pull the rubber band in the other direction — we call this dynamic tension — and they want to make [a certain income]. There’s that tension. They’re locked in.”
Some women who don’t yet have children are afraid to try, says Bussin. Because if they did start a family, who would be the primary caregiver?
“I’ve had numerous female partners in law and accounting firms explicitly say they weren’t having kids or holding off for fear it would push them off the track,” she says. “I don’t think we’ve made any progress.”
Jen LaFrance is a partner at E3 Financial Planning in Needham, which caters to wealthy clients, many of them female business owners who typically make a minimum of $150,000 per year individually and often earn upwards of $1 million annually. (Some are widows or have divorced.) These women are corporate powerhouses — but they’re still doing the laundry. Indeed, traditional household gender roles persist. Women still undertake more housework than men, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: On an average day, 22 percent of men reported doing housework (cleaning, laundry) compared with 50 percent of women. In fact, a 2014 study of dual-income earners based on the American Time Use Survey showed that when men make less money than their wives and experience “gender-role threat,” they do less housework.
“I don’t see resentment over an income imbalance so much as over household tasks. I see resentment when her spouse steps out of the room, and [she] says how she handles everything. She’s still doing pickup. You can be a woman running a big company, very in charge, but at the end of the day, it hurts if you feel like you’re doing everything,” LaFrance says.
A senior executive in the financial industry, who spoke to the Globe Magazine on condition of anonymity to protect her children’s privacy after her divorce, faced this dilemma. Her marriage unraveled after the death of her parents, who had helped with the care of her three children. Both she and her husband were high achievers in the workforce. They had planned to split the household load equally once they had children. But her now ex-husband, frustrated by lack of progress in his own career, refused to help take care of the kids.
“As he put it, ‘Professional people don’t call in sick when their kids are sick.’ He had this concept of what professional people did. But someone has to watch the sick kid,” she says.
They divorced. Eventually she began dating again, but this time strategically, with specific requirements.
“When I forced myself to start dating, I set these criteria: He has to earn as much as or more than me. I won’t do this again,” she says. “I didn’t want a guy to feel threatened.”
She ran into plenty of men who wanted someone “easy on the eyes, someone who smiled and nodded a lot,” she says. She wanted an intellectual partner who had good relationships with his own children. She finally met someone who respected her career, expected to share child-care responsibilities, and wasn’t intimidated by her income.
“People are out there,” she says. “You just have to look carefully.”
There’s no shame in being strategic about managing personal demands, just as one would be strategic about finding a new job. Bussin urges overwhelmed clients to view their lives in three lenses.
“I draw three concentric circles: career, life, and money. I’m pretty straightforward. It’s hard to balance all three if you don’t want to make any changes. What would you be willing to adjust?” she asks.
First, delegate. She sees many women who delegate seamlessly in the office but resist dispersing menial household tasks, whether that means hiring someone to cut the lawn, run errands, or organize closets.
Next, scrutinize expenses. Many of her clients don’t know how much they spend and feel they need a certain salary to survive — when, in truth, they could cut back and make less, if they chose. Bussin urges clients to use a cash-flow worksheet to track where their money really goes.
Finally, she says, adjust expectations. “You can’t get everything at once,” Bussin says. “Ask any woman who looks like she has her life together. Ask them. Something is not getting full attention.”
Which is why these women say that having a supportive partner matters logistically and emotionally. It isn’t a fringe benefit; for those who choose to marry, it’s a professional necessity as crucial as health insurance or a good retirement plan.
“It gives me air to do my thing,” says Jane Goldstein, a co-managing partner of the Boston office and co-head of mergers and acquisitions for North America at Ropes & Gray, the global law firm headquartered in Boston. Her husband, Bruce Depper, frustrated with his construction job, left the workforce long ago to become a stay-at-home dad. He used to coach soccer and helped to run the school lunch program at their daughter’s school, where he was also the first male PTA president. Once their daughter enrolled in a Vermont boarding school as a teenager, he would drive up to cook elaborate meals for her and her friends.
The couple used to have a boat named Working Mom. Goldstein’s vanity license plate says the same thing (WKG MOM). Although their daughter is all grown up now, Depper still makes the family’s Swampscott home run smoothly. Goldstein doesn’t dry a dish or mop a floor. The arrangement works, and they can afford it. It’s a system that allowed her to wholly focus her energies outside of work on their daughter during her childhood years. And in the office, she was fully present.
“To this day, it’s true: I don’t do laundry. I don’t cook. I don’t have to worry about, ‘Is there tinfoil?’ All of that is lifted off of me,” she says.
Attorney Victoria Mair, a partner at downtown law firm Meehan, Boyle, Black and Bogdanow, is married to an accomplished Harvard associate professor — whom she out-earns.
She puts it succinctly.
“Marry a feminist,” she says.