Anticipating Earning the Supplemental Income vs. Banking on Being the Breadwinner

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I am a professor. Why did I choose this profession? Several reasons come to mind. I loved psychology, I excelled in my psychology courses, and I always felt comfortable in a school setting. I was mentored by an Asian-American female professor and, through her, was able to see being a professor as a viable career. But a large part of my choice was also because others told me that being a professor was a family-friendly profession, especially for women. The schedule was flexible. If you had to take time off from work because your child was sick, you could do so. Professors have summers off. They have control over their time.

Discussing whether being a professor is actually a family-friendly profession deserves its own separate post. What strikes me now in my 30s is that I was already thinking about which professions were family friendly when I was 18, more than a decade ago. Life often brings you the unexpected. So was the case with my own life. Unfathomable to my 18-year-old self, I was single up until very recently and am currently childless. Yet, I structured my whole career, and spent years of training and schooling, around this notion of finding a family-friendly career.

This prioritization of personal relationships does not just abruptly appear during college. Even in preschool, girls engage in more fantasy play involving household roles and romance than do boys. In elementary school and adolescence, girls tend to read books with more relationship and romantic themes than do boys. In high school, as young as age 14, girls place more importance on marriage than boys. Girls also expect marriage to be more important than their careers compared to boys. In college, young women anticipate marriage and parenthood more so than young men. Where does this preoccupation with romance, family, and relationships come from? Intriguing new research suggests that even in infancy, girls tend to be more interested in people and faces than boys, whereas boys tend to be more interested in “things”, or objects, than girls, suggesting the role of biology. However, I also have a hunch that society cultivates this preoccupation with relationships from a young age in girls more so than in boys.

I don’t want it to seem like prioritizing family is a bad thing. I love being a professor, and I am grateful for being able to do work that I find interesting, challenging, and meaningful. However, I think that when making my decisions about which career to pursue, I unconsciously assumed that in the future: (i) I would be married, (ii) I would have children, (iii) I would have a partner that would help me raise these said children, and (iv) my financial contribution to the family would be less than my partner’s. What if I had thought otherwise? What if, since I was a girl, I thought I would be the sole financial supporter of myself? What if, as a girl, I knew that the weight of my family’s well-being would fall on me? Would I have chosen a different career? My sophomore and junior years in college were filled with daily angst about choosing to major in psychology or economics, another subject I found interesting. If I had banked on being the breadwinner or the sole supporter of my financial well-being, would I have gone into a more lucrative field? Why did I assume I would be able to count on someone else to make the “real money” in my household? I don’t think I ever articulated this or clearly thought this through when I was making these decisions back in college. It was more of an implicit assumption that seemed so assured that it did not need to be made explicit.

Most girls (and boys) are taught these marriage and family scripts and these gender roles at quite a young age and many believe them. Growing up in a conservative neighborhood, the child of middle-class Asian immigrant parents, who attended a conservative church, the male-provider/female-homemaker family structure was all I ever saw. Friends’ mothers who did work tended to earn the supplemental income, often working jobs well beneath their intelligence, schooling, and capabilities. They worked as administrative assistants and school lunch assistants. Many of my aunts with graduate degrees gave up their careers permanently to take care of their children.

As I write, I can hear dissenting voices reporting different upbringings. I realize that my upbringing was privileged. In lower-income families, women do not have the luxury of being the supplemental income earner or of being the homemaker. Their incomes are necessary and vital to the survival of their families. In many lower-income families, women are also more likely to be single mothers than in middle-income families. They may be the sole earners supporting their children and possibly even their parents. Their choices for career paths may have been more limited. Upbringings concerning expectations for work and family can also vary by culture. In several qualitative studies, when psychologists and sociologists interview parents about how they aspire to raise their daughters, African American parents stand out. They report a special emphasis on preparing their daughters to be strong and to expect to be the pillars of both their families and communities.

So far, I have reflected on my personal experience as a woman and as a younger girl. What about the experiences of men and boys? Promoting the norm of heterosexual families where the man earns the money and the woman’s income is supplemental, if at all existent, can harm men and boys as well. Imagine all the men we know in stable but staid jobs. Some of them genuinely love their jobs, sure. But how many of them felt pressure to earn a certain income to provide for their future families? How many boys feel that they have to put aside their true passions in order to live up to societal standards requiring men to be the providers? Gender roles are constricting for women and girls, yes, but we often forget how punishing they can be for men and boys. As more men voice their desires for work-family balance, and as more women attain higher education and climb the corporate ladder, society might slowly change. However, a handful of very recent studies suggest that, as of now, men receive severe approbation for deviating from masculine work norms. For example, if they work part-time or choose to use flex time, men are penalized in various ways, such as receiving lower job evaluations, being judged as less masculine, and even earning lower wages.

Teaching children gender norms regarding who should be the financial provider of one’s family, teaching girls to invest much time and energy on romantic relationships, and teaching girls to expect and desire traditional marriage and family structures in the future might have harmful consequences, especially if life brings you the unexpected, as it often does. Girls may end up finding themselves not being able to be financially independent. Boys may end up whittling away at a job they don’t much care for, but that pays well. I hope we can make a conscious effort to provide more diverse examples of how families can be like both in real life and in the media. The models children, especially girls, see around them can affect their anticipated family roles and occupational aspirations (also see here).