INTERVIEW WITH DR. SUZANNE DOYLE-MORRIS | BY IZZY CHAN
Dr. Suzanne Doyle-Morris specializes in strategic career development and leadership coaching for high-potential executive women, and helps companies think through unconscious bias in the workplace. She is one of three experts featured in The Big Flip, a documentary on breadwinner wives and stay-at-home dads.
You’ve been studying the topic of female breadwinners for a long time—your book on the topic was published back in 2011. But even now in 2015, it remains a hidden trend where people are shocked to find out how prevalent it is. Why is that?
It’s fascinating what a tender topic this still is for families. This is just not something women shared openly. I think that comes from a sense of loyalty to the men in their lives. It is private what people earn, but it is interesting how few women are willing to own up to it even though it is something to be proud of, that you’re able to support your family, your husband, yourself.
I remember one woman… we had been working on negotiation skills. She came to her session and said, “Oh my gosh Suzanne, it was fantastic. Everything we practiced worked—worked so well that I got a bigger raise than I anticipated.” Then she goes on, “I know my husband will be delighted but there’s a bit of me that is unsure how to tell him. He has been struggling at his job and earns far less than me. I think there is a part of him that wishes it was him bringing home this extra money.”
I’ve heard that too, and felt something similar when I was the breadwinner. Why do we react that way?
Little boys grow up to believe that when they got married, that there will be a time in their future where they have to be responsible for providing not just for themselves, but for their children and their wife. It’s a privilege but a very large responsibility as well. Most women—women born in the 60′s, 70′s, and certainly after that—we know that we will earn, we will work, we will be independent. But we’re not quite raised to think that we will be the main earners for our husband and family.
What’s driving the rise of female breadwinners?
We have just seen exponential growth in the number of women getting not just degrees, but advanced degrees. In fact women are out pacing men when it comes to degrees. That makes them hugely attractive for employers.
When you look at the world at large, where is this trend happening?
The rise of female breadwinners is a global phenomenon. Women’s issues around the world are different depending on the country you’re in. So in parts of the developing world, access to safe, reliable public transport is one of their main concerns. In places like the United States and the U.K., access to childcare are the main concerns, but that’s not as much an issue in other parts of the world where you’ve got extended families living together.
There are studies that show men and women in big flip marriages are less happy, and more likely to divorce than the average couple. Why do you think that’s so?
This has been such a rapid change. We still have many expectations as to what a good mother, a good wife should look like. But being the main earner was never part of the job description of a good mother and wife. In fact, many men see being a good earner as part of being a good father and a good husband, but female breadwinners don’t get the same credit, which can cause guilt and resentment.
But the other more positive side is the choice and freedom that is offered to both parties as well. Men have much more freedom to take jobs that actually means something to them, rather than just being a wage.
I think naysayers worry too much about a supposedly heightened divorce rate amongst these families. Female breadwinner families are similar to lots of other families, in that both partners are never 100% happy all the time. I would worry more about a divorce rate that is stable but that keeps women and children in bad relationships and bad families where they do not have the choice to leave, because they are dependent on an earner who is not a great father, not a great husband. That would worry me more.
Why should businesses and institutions care about the rise of female breadwinners?
This is a hugely important demographic shift for several reasons. The first is that women are your talent of tomorrow. So if you wanted to hire university educated graduates, you kind of need to get really serious about making yourself attractive to females. Another reason is that we have a growing amount of research that just shows how much better companies perform financially when they have women in senior leadership. Everything from higher return on investment, return on equity, to higher customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction scores.
What challenges do female breadwinners face at work?
Women in general struggle with assumptions that employers make about how discretionary her earning is. Let’s say a company is considering whom to promote for a position in Taipei. A decision-maker might assume, “We don’t want to hassle Jenny because she has a couple of small kids and I want to be understanding to working moms. So let’s not even bother her about it because that would put her in a difficult position. But John, he’s a willing up and comer. We think he’d really appreciate this stretch.” But what the company might not know is that Jenny is the main earner, her husband stays at home, takes care of the kids and helps facilitate her success, and she would want that short term move to Taipei for the long term benefit to her family. What the company might not know about John is that he is married to a breadwinning corporate lawyer, and John can’t go to Taipei as easily because he does the pick-ups and drop-offs for his kids.
Companies make assumptions not just about women, but about what men want as well. This is not just the new normal for women. This is the new normal for men. And employers need to adjust.
So what do companies that “get it” do right?
Here are some of the best practices that I see in companies who are serious about gender equality. The first is that they treat flexible working as a human need for all employees, rather than something special that they’re doing just for the working moms. Because when they do that, it creates divisiveness in the workplace between working parents, working mothers in particular, and everybody else—and that creates real tension.
The second thing is that they don’t try to “fix” the women. What I mean by that is, when we work to help women with negotiation skills, or assertiveness, or confidence building, we don’t try to make them more like men. Because all we do is turn off generations of women who say, “If that’s what it takes to get to the top, then thanks but no thanks.”
The third is to make sure that senior leadership is engaged. That any change you make around gender balancing comes from the top. They have to buy into it and set the example.
I often see a lot more women than men at meetings and talks about gender balancing. How can we evolve this conversation in a way that’s more inclusive for men?
We all just want to know how does this relate to me. When I talk to men, I ask them about a time when they may have dated somebody who earned more than them. What was that like? What did that give you? What were the benefits around that? Some will say, “It was nice that I didn’t have to pay for every single dinner.” Or “She organized trips for us, which is nice.” I also ask them about what they want for their daughters. What kind of organization do you want your daughter to work in? Could she succeed here, where you work? That’s when I get answers like, “I want her to succeed in a place that didn’t make her feel that she had to choose between a career and giving me grandchildren.”
Any last words of advice or thoughts for us and big flip families?
This is the new normal and that you’re not alone. When people say, ” I don’t know many women in this situation.” I tell them, “Oh you do! You just don’t know which.” This is happening all around you.
I want people to see this as a real benefit to a lot of families. We are living in a time of exceptional change in the workplace. People are not having lifetime careers, men or women, any longer. Recognizing that you’re a true partnership, that you’ve got someone else to rely on to ease the financial burden—that is a real 21st-century benefit.
*NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.