CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Gender stereotypes have been a controversial subject of debate in recent years, particularly when it comes to equal pay in many industries. While women have proved they can be every bit the breadwinner as men in a marriage, a new study finds that couples who go against the age-old norms are actually at a higher risk of damaging their psychological well-being.
That is, when a mother takes on the role of the breadwinner for her family and the father opts to be the homemaker, both are more likely to suffer mentally and feel deeply dissatisfied in life.
Researchers at the University of Illinois examined data on nearly 1,500 men and 1,800 women, aged between 52 and 60, who had participated in the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth. They hoped to measure whether partners gained satisfaction from bucking trends — in this case, being a breadwinning female or a stay-at-home male.
Participants’ well-being was evaluated through depression scale inventories administered in 1991 and 1994, each of which contained seven items.
The researchers first found that men’s well-being decreased once they had left the workforce to tend to household matters, while the inverse wasn’t true for women. In fact, their findings showed that women who became the breadwinner of their family reported more symptoms of depression.
“We observed a statistically significant and substantial difference in depressive symptoms between men and women in our study,” says lead researcher Karen Kramer in a news release. “The results supported the overarching hypothesis: well-being was lower for mothers and fathers who violated gendered expectations about the division of paid labor, and higher for parents who conformed to these expectations.”
Acknowledging that public disapproval could adversely affect mental health, the researchers wondered whether partners who held egalitarian views on wage-earning and household duties experienced similar effects when they shunned gender roles.
They found that wives who believed they and their husband should pull double duty encountered improved mental health when their wages more closely approached their partner’s.
Egalitarian-minded men, however, almost always took a psychological hit when their wife’s income increased.
“Work identity and [the] traditional role of primary earner are still critical for men, even when they have more egalitarian gender ideology,” the researchers suggested.
All in all, the gender norms that pervaded until recently may have had some basis in reality, even if they don’t apply in all circumstances to everyone.
The study’s findings were presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Montreal earlier this month.