Even the Thought of Earning Less than Their Wives Changes How Men Behave

By Dan Cassino * 

Masculinity is a fragile thing. Volumes of research in sociology and political science over the past 20 years have shown that men often react in surprisingly strong ways to what they see as threats to their masculine identities. These reactions are most visible in the political world, but they can take place at home and in the office as well, and can potentially contribute to a toxic work environment.

A notable recent example of how men react to a threat to their masculinity comes from a survey experiment that I carried out with my colleagues at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll. The experiment was embedded in a standard political survey with one unusual question, which asked married or cohabitating respondents if they earned more, less, or about the same as their spouses. Half of the respondents were randomly assigned to get this question early on in the survey, and half were assigned to get it only at the end of the survey.

Now, this question wasn’t there because we cared about the actual answers. We know that about 15% of U.S. men make less than their spouses do — a figure that’s highly dependent on age, with younger men being much more likely than older men to earn the same or less than their spouses. The reason we asked the question was to push men to think about potential threats to their gender roles. Being the breadwinner has been a linchpin of U.S. men’s masculinity for decades, so even the potential of making less than one’s spouse threatens accepted gender roles.

Merely asking the question about spousal income led to enormous shifts in men’s preferences in the upcoming presidential election. Men who weren’t asked about spousal income until late in the survey preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in a hypothetical general election matchup by a 16-point margin; men who were asked about spousal income only a few questions before being asked about the Clinton-Trump matchup preferred Trump by an eight-point margin — a 24-point shift in preferences. The conclusion that this is about gender is reinforced by the fact that the spousal income question had no effect at all on a matchup between Trump and Bernie Sanders. Men who had been primed to think about a threat to their masculinity preferred Sanders by four points; unprimed men, by three.

In this case, men were responding to a threat to their masculinity by saying they would prefer a man, rather than a woman, in a presidential race (especially a woman who has been a known gender nonconformist ever since she talked about how she refused to “stay home and bake cookies” almost 25 years ago).

But these effects are hardly limited to the political realm. In another paper (published in About Gender in 2014), my wife and I show that increases in spousal income lead men to do less housework than they otherwise would. It might be expected that couples who make about the same amount of money would do about the same amount of work around the house, and that as one of them makes more, the other would pick up some extra work at home. While this is generally true, it utterly falls apart when the husband earns less than his wife does. In those households, the greater the income differential, the less housework the husband does. Other research has shown that men who perceive a threat to their masculinity become more likely to stress their role as household decision makers, or even to buy an SUV.

The fact that these responses to gender role threat show up in the political world and in the home makes it no surprise that they show up in the workplace as well. A study published in the American Sociological Review in 2012 looked at the factors that led to reports of sexual harassment in the workplace, and found that women in supervisory roles were 130% more likely to have been the victims of sexual harassment than those in nonsupervisory roles, with the harassment often taking the form of leering or sexual comments. Just as men can symbolically reinforce their masculinity by doing less housework or supporting Donald Trump, they can respond to the threat posed by a female manager by engaging in sexual harassment, making antigay jokes, or mistreating other women in the workplace.

This seems like a no-win situation, but the research on gender role threat also provides some hope. In our election study, for instance, threats to men’s masculinity generally led them to be less supportive of Clinton. But among some groups — most notably young liberal men — the gender role threat led to greater support for Clinton. Similarly, in the housework study the men generally spent less time doing housework, but some subgroups spent more time cooking, an activity that’s become perceived as more acceptable for men over the past 15 years.

While there is still a dominant group of behaviors that society considers appropriately masculine — what researchers call “hegemonic” masculinity — there are increasingly other ways for men to “do” masculinity. In the household that may mean redefining masculinity to include being a good father or a great cook. In politics it may mean advocating for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It’s not yet clear what these alternative masculinities will look like in the workplace. Perhaps focusing more energy on mentorship or technical skills would give men ways to express their masculinity without excluding or harassing women, creating a workplace that’s healthier for everyone.

* Cross-posted with permission from Harvard Business Review here.

Dan Cassino is an associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, researching public opinion and political psychology. His new book, Fox News and American Politics, will be released at the end of April.

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