The role of women in the workplace is rapidly changing as more and more women are becoming the main or sole breadwinner in families. Figures recently released in Ireland show that 33% of working women in Ireland are the main breadwinners (2011 Pfizer Health Index). In the U.S. women, for the first time, now make up half of the working population and according to the US Bureau of Labor statistics (2009) one third of women are main or sole breadwinners and this was expected to rise with the faltering economy. In the UK a survey carried out by the government revealed that nearly 19% of women earned more than men, 25% earned the same whereas in 1969 it was only 4%. (The figures come from a Government commissioned report into economic inequality, published by the National Equality Panel. It analysed official surveys on households in the UK. over the past four decades, which included both married and unmarried couples.)

In a small study ‘The Female Breadwinner: A Phenomenological Experience and Gendered Identity in Work/Family Spaces”, Rachael Meisenbach found that the female breadwinner described six essential experiences: opportunities for control, independence, pressure and worry, valuing partners’ contributions, guilt and resentment, and ambition

As breadwinners, women face many challenges whether this role is by choice or by default. This role can cause women to feel challenged as traditional values and perceptions held by society dictate that a man’s role is that of breadwinner and a women’s role, whether she is working or not, is that of carer. As a result it can bring up a range of feelings such as;

  • Resentment- It can cause conflicted feelings as a woman may feel grateful that her husband is minding the children and doing household chores and at the same time resentful that he is not out earning money or earning enough money.

  • Shame - yes shame, that she is the breadwinner and ‘it should be her husband’ in this role.


In today’s struggling economy women can find themselves in this role by default. Being 100% responsible for the family income can cause immense pressure. Again there may be conflict as a woman has to negotiate the transition to this new territory of how to be in the role of breadwinner and at the same time allowing her partner or husband to be the full time father and /or househusband. Resentment can come about if the woman is expected or expects herself to take on multiple roles, or if she expects her husband to do the child minding and household chores the same way as she did. She can also feel resentful that this is something that she did not sign up for and is not her choice. Resentful that she is not receiving the emotional support that she needs from her partner or is unable to ask for it yet she is still expected or expects herself to be the one to give the emotional support.

There can also be guilt. Guilt that she has a job whilst her husband/partner is struggling with not having a job, guilt that she may actually be enjoying this new found freedom and guilt that she cannot be available to her husband and children as she was before.

If these feelings are not worked through it can lead to anger and this in turn may be directed at her partner. For example, she may be angry that he is not doing the child rearing, the household chores, or the shopping the way that she does. This in turn leads to conflict, it puts pressure on the relationship, and then neither feels supported by the other.

So what can be done to make the role of the woman as breadwinner easier regardless of whether it is by choice or default?  Couples need to renegotiate how they relate to each other. This can be done by communication. They need to communicate openly about the impact that the woman’s role has on their relationship. They need to remember what brought them together in the first place and what it is that they love and enjoy about each other. It is also about respect for each other, respect for what they do and the challenges that go with that. Couples need to become aware of their perceptions of each other and to resist judging the other by their income or lack of it. It may also be learning to ask for support which in turn leads to supporting each other, supporting each other’s goals and career choices and moving forward together in a healthy and supportive environment.