The Female-Breadwinner Wellbeing ‘Penalty’: Differences by Men’s (Un)Employment and Country


This article examines the relationship between female breadwinning and life satisfaction in heterosexual couples. We extend previous research by treating the man’s employment status as a variable that helps to explain rather than confounds this relationship, and by comparing multiple countries through regression analyses of European Social Survey data (Rounds 2–9). Results provide evidence of a female-breadwinner well-being ‘penalty’: men and women are less satisfied with their lives under the female-breadwinner arrangement versus the dual-earner and male-breadwinner alternatives. The penalty is marginal when the male partner is part-time employed but sizeable when he is jobless. However, there are gender differences: after controls for composition, gender-role attitudes, and partners’ relative incomes, the penalty becomes negligible for women while remaining large for men. Analyses suggest these gender differences are linked to high male unemployment among female-breadwinner couples: whereas women appear roughly equally adversely affected by a male partner’s unemployment as by their own, men report substantially higher well-being when she is unemployed instead of him. Country comparisons indicate that while this female-breadwinner well-being penalty is largest in more conservative contexts, especially Germany, it is fairly universal across Europe. So, even in countries where women’s employment is more widespread and cultural and institutional support for the male-breadwinner model is weaker, unemployed men with breadwinner wives are not immune from the social stigma and psychological difficulties associated with their gender non-conformity.

European Sociological Review
Helen Kowalewska
Lecturer/Assistant Professor

Lecturer/Assistant Professor at the University of Bath with interests in comparative social policy, gender and employment.