The working wife conundrum: Are men conditioned to view woman's success as own failure?

by Sneha Rajaram

Last week, a nasty piece addressing men’s insecurities about their spouses’ earnings appeared in The Times of India. It interviewed several men who were disturbed that their wives earned more than they did (funnily enough, their wives were not interviewed). Reading what the men had to say between quotation marks was bad enough. But outside it, the piece was sickeningly sympathetic to these men and consulted life coaches and psychiatrists about this problem, and told women who earn more than their spouses to “watch your attitude and manners” so as not to trigger their husbands’ insecurities. All in all, it treated men’s age-old insecurity about working women as if it was something to be pitied – understandable and to handled with care.

Now, we might be used to such covert sexism appearing in our media, but there is something to be examined properly here. Most men, including the self-professed liberal ones, get anxious about female partners who work, female colleagues and female bosses. Don’t believe me? Several different recent studies have confirmed what women have known for centuries – that men are threatened by any kind of working woman — whether it’s the bride who wants to keep her pre-marital job, the wife who earns more, the female colleague who performs better, or the ultimate threat: the female boss.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin last year, for instance, talks about just how insecure some men are made by a female boss. Citing a hilariously termed “precarious manhood theory”, the three-part study’s summary finds that “that men feel more threatened […] by women in superior roles […] and, as a result, engage in more assertive behaviors toward these women”. Now, many working women might say, “I could have told you that for free.” But the study came up with another, even more valuable finding: Men feel less threatened by female bosses whose professional style is oriented towards “administrative agency (e.g., directness, proactivity)” rather than “ambitious agency (e.g., self-promotion, power-seeking)”.

So basically, men want a female boss to be more like a female secretary and less like a male boss. This is an interesting distinction. The less threatening female boss-secretary hybrid who stays in her administrative role is reminiscent of the days when the only women in an office were in the typing pool or at the switchboard. Those women had plenty of “proactivity and directness”, after all. And they were not allowed ambition either. Basically, if you’re a female boss in 2015, please don’t try to be ambitious or else your poor male employees will suffer and feel threatened by you, or worse.

If you think ambition is the only thing that threatens men, think again. Some men’s egos are much more fragile than that. Another recent report based on a survey by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research confirmed that a woman earning more than her husband creates problems like stress and jealousy in a marriage. The study’s author, in fact, went on to say that men are most ‘satisfied’ in their marriage when their wife is not in the workforce at all. “I guess all things being equal, men would prefer their wife at home and managing the household."

Ladies and gentlemen, please remember that this was said in the same year as Justin Trudeau — when the newly elected Canadian prime minister was asked why his cabinet consisted of 50 percent women — replied, “Because it’s 2015.”

So what can happen in a romantic relationship when the woman is successful or earns more than her partner?

An earlier study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that a female partner’s success usually hits where it hurts – it directly affects a man’s self-esteem even if they’re not competing in the same field. The findings of this study are chillingly bleak:

"It makes sense that a man might feel threatened if his girlfriend outperforms him in something they're doing together, such as trying to lose weight," said the study's lead author, Kate Ratliff, PhD, of the University of Florida. "But this research found evidence that men automatically interpret a partner's success as their own failure, even when they're not in direct competition."

Even worse:

The researchers conducted five experiments with 896 people in heterosexual relationships. In one, 32 couples took a “test of problem-solving and social intelligence” and then were told by the researcher whether their partner had scored in the top or bottom 12 percent. Hearing how their partner scored did not affect how men said they felt, but their scores on a test to see how they felt subconsciously (called “implicit self-esteem”) revealed a different picture: Men who believed their partner scored in the top 12 percent demonstrated significantly lower implicit self-esteem than men who believed their partner scored in the bottom 12 percent.

Could this be because men are conditioned to interpret any success by women around them as their own failure?

Here’s the kicker. The experiment also showed that “men who believed their partner scored in the bottom 12 percent” showed higher self-esteem. Doesn’t that mean they interpreted their partners’ failure as their success, too? Even if it doesn’t, the fact that a man can make his partner’s performance into a story about himself and his self-esteem leaves a lasting impression.

Professional jealousy and general stress are one thing, but what about a couple’s relationship itself? Yet another study published in the American Sociological Review last year found that men are more likely to cheat on wives who earn more than them. The study’s author found that:

“the less that men and women earned in income compared to their spouses, the more likely they were to cheat. This was especially true of husbands. Men were also more likely to cheat if they made significantly more than their spouses, while women who made a lot more than their husbands were less likely to be unfaithful.

On the one hand, the fact that we need such scientific ‘data’ – to ‘prove’ how men feel women are not equal to them – is a little unpalatable. The question, then, becomes: how many more such studies do we need to ‘prove’ male insecurity about women’s success? Why do women still have to repeat these facts about their everyday experiences?

On the other hand, if these studies are what it takes to wake the world up to working women’s problems, then they are indeed valuable. They prove a number of things, but most importantly, they prove that there is no one type of working woman on whom these insecurities fixate.

So whether you’re a female manager who worries about being too ambitious or a woman who earns more than her husband, you should know that nothing you do, short of not existing as a woman, is going to change how men feel about you and your success. Hopefully, that knowledge will be liberating for many of us, our daughters and our granddaughters in the battles to come.

Sneha Rajaram is writer-at-large at the online women’s magazine The Ladies Finger.

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Updated Date: Jan 15, 2016 12:59:13 IST

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