Want Hillary Clinton to win in November? Don’t remind men that their wives might make more money than them.
It sounds like a bizarre non sequitur, but that’s the takeaway from a new study on masculinity, money, and voting. Researchers separated men into two groups and asked them a series of questions about politics. One of those questions was whether their spouse or live-in partner made more, less, or the same as them. Half of the men were asked about their partner’s income late in the survey; others were asked near the beginning, just a few questions away from who they would support in the November presidential election. Those who were asked about spousal income late in the survey, after they had already answered the question about the election, preferred Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump in a hypothetical election by 16 points. Those who were asked about their spouse’s income and then about the election a few minutes later preferred Trump by 8 points. That’s a 24-point change. There was no similar shift when voters were asked about a Bernie Sanders-Donald Trump contest.
When women were asked the same questions, the result was the opposite: Women preferred Clinton to Trump generally, but that preference became stronger when they were asked about spousal income.
"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)," one of the researchers, Dan Cassino, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article.
This study is only the latest to show how men feel threatened when their status as breadwinner is threatened by a woman and how they react by penalizing women in some way. Other research has shown that men do less housework when their wives out-earn them, and that women in supervisory roles are much more likely to be sexually harassed than women who aren’t in managerial roles.
In the past few decades, women have made great strides: More of us are in the workforce, we’re going to college in greater numbers than men, we’re getting graduate degrees at record rates, we’re a larger share of Congress than we’ve been in the history of the United States (although it’s worth noting that record share is just 20 percent). It’s no longer expected that a woman will quit her job when she gets married or has a baby; it’s not universally expected that she get married or have a baby at all.
But while women have increasingly inhabited spaces long dominated by men – the workforce, the political realm, even the military – men have not made similar inroads into traditionally female spaces. Yes, men do more at home than ever before, spending much more time with their children than they did in the "traditional family" heyday of the 1950s and ’60s. But women spend more time with their kids too – more, even, than at the height of stay-at-home motherhood – and women today still spend more time with their children than do men. Women also spend more time on housework, contributing to the "second shift" phenomenon, where women come home from the paid workforce only to do more unpaid labor at home. Though American men are picking up more of the slack at home, they still have more leisure time than women.
This is the greatest unfinished business of feminism. Movements for gender equality rightly focused on the group at a disadvantage – women – and pushed for more inclusion, money, power, choices, and resources. What’s happened, though, is that women now have many of the burdens long put on men but few of the resources – such as wives who do most of the work of child-rearing and house-cleaning – that enable men to shoulder those burdens more easily.
Today, there are a lot of ways to be a woman. A woman no longer has her fundamental woman-ness questioned if she works outside the home or plays soccer or wears pants. What it means to be a man, though, remains considerably narrower. Yes, there are some stay-at-home dads who devote themselves to children and family, but those men are only a tiny fraction of the American male public and far fewer in number than the women who do the same. Mostly, being a breadwinner continues to define masculinity for many American men. If a man cannot provide for his family, what kind of man is he?
This hurts women. When women in positions of power, whether they are elected officials or managers at work or even economic providers at home, are penalized by men who feel their status and manhood threatened – if they’re sexually harassed at work, if they have to do more than their share of housework and childcare, if they don’t earn votes because of their gender – the outcome is fewer women who achieve and thrive. And the longer relatively few women hold positions of authority, the longer it will take for female authority to become wholly normalized and the more women in power will continue to face an uphill battle.
It hurts men too. We no longer live in an economy where a man without a college degree can expect to work in a low-skill job that pays enough to support a whole family and leaves enough for him to retire comfortably. Traditionally female fields, like nursing and health care, increasingly pay better, have more job openings, and offer more stable positions than some traditionally male ones, like factory work. In many households, the women who hold these jobs now out-earn their husbands. In others, masculinity may be keeping the men poorer: A sense that a traditionally female job like nursing or housework is below them means some men simply won’t earn what they could. And when men are hostile to their female partners out-earning them and make their partner’s life more difficult by not pulling their own weight at home, they diminish the whole family’s economic prospects: If women don’t have the support they need to succeed as highly as possible and balance a work schedule with what needs to be done for the kids and in the house, the attendant at-home labor required of them can mean fewer paid hours, driving down their earnings and their career potential. And when we position men as only as valuable as the money they bring in, we diminish all of the other contributions they make: Their skill as parents, their support at home, their creativity, their passion, their capacity to nurture and care.
Changing these deeply held values is tough. One difficulty is that men probably don’t undermine women on purpose, and it’s the rare man who will say he supports Trump because his wife makes more money. It’s more insidious and subconscious, and therefore harder to combat. One way is to continue expanding women’s roles, especially in public leadership. Another is to expand men’s, and to create socially acceptable avenues to be a man that are not contingent on bringing home a paycheck. That’s a complicated prospect, but there are a few things that could be done, in the political sphere and the social. Federal paid parental leave, for example, should in the first instance simply exist; it should also be gender-neutral, and there could be a Swedish-style mechanism to incentivize men to take it – for example, giving new parents additional leave if the father takes his full leave. Media representations of men could diversify, imaging them not just as working people and occasional bumbling dads, but competent caregivers and emotionally intelligent husbands. Much of the work, though, has to be done by men themselves, challenging convention, pushing back on outdated gender stereotypes, and having the courage to reimagine masculinity. It’s not easy – just ask the feminists – but it can be done.
Until men have the kind of gender-role flexibility that women have spent the past half-century cultivating, equality will remain a long-shot aspiration. That will keep men trapped in the breadwinner box and keep women from reaching their full potential. This clinging to a constricted, brittle masculinity may even keep a woman out of the White House.
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