Are Female Breadwinners at Greater Risk for Spousal Abuse?
Why income inequality may put working women in danger.
Posted May 21, 2020 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
Although COVID-19 and similar outbreaks over the years have claimed countless lives, so has a different type of pandemic: domestic abuse. One big difference, is the reality that intimate partner violence largely flies under the radar. The reality is that although largely underreported, both men and women can be domestic violence perpetrators, as well as victims. In many cases, incidents of abuse stem from identifiable risk factors.
When Women “Bring Home the Bacon”
The situation of a woman earning more than her male partner is not new. What is new, is how post-pandemic job losses and layoffs have thrust couples unexpectedly into this relationship of power imbalance.
While many modern couples view a female family breadwinner as a sign of progress and are grateful for the income stream, some partners feel threatened by the unconventional power dynamic. Unfortunately, the suggestion that spousal violence stems from attempts to control and dominate working partners in marital relationships has serious consequences during times of unexpected unemployment.
Ross MacMillan and Rosemary Gartner studied this issue back in 1999 in a piece entitled “When She Brings Home the Bacon: Labor-Force Participation and the Risk of Spousal Violence against Women.”[i] They examined the link between the risk of spousal violence against women and employment by treating a woman’s participation in the workforce as a symbolic resource, rather than a socioeconomic one. Their data, from the Violence Against Women Survey, gathered the experiences of 8,461 women with spouses either legally or per common-law.
MacMillan and Gartner found that the impact of a woman’s employment on her level of risk for violence depended on the employment status of her spouse. Specifically, the authors noted that women who were gainfully employed were at lower risk of spousal abuse when their male partners also worked, but they were at substantially increased risk when in a relationship with male partners who were not employed. They suggest that “these effects reflect, to some extent, efforts by men to coercively control their female partners.”
Discussing the relationship between employment and spousal violence more broadly, MacMillan and Gartner found little evidence that employment as an economic resource was a risk factor. They did not, contrary to prior research, find that working women were less likely to be domestic violence victims. They also did not find that working men had a decreased likelihood of becoming perpetrators, perhaps by virtue of economic stability. Abuse was apparently conditioned in part on the employment status of each partner.
Working Women at Risk
Research in other jurisdictions has similarly found working women to be at higher risk of intimate partner valence. Varena Tandrayen-Ragoobur conducted a recent study (2020) examining the link between working women and being victimized by intimate partners.[ii] Using the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) across 20 Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries between the years of 2010 and 2015, she found working women have a 19% higher odds of abuse as compared to their non-working counterparts. She found this result was true for sexual, emotional and less severe forms of physical abuse.
Relevant to the relationship between education and employment, it is noteworthy that Tandrayen-Ragoobur also observed that women with more education face a higher risk of intimate partner abuse.
Although such research has many other implications for working women, jurisdictional laws, and family counseling, it serves to dispel the stereotype held by some that education and employment will always serve to protect women from violence.
The goal is to keep families safe in their own homes both emotionally and physically. This is true for better or for worse, and both in sickness and in health—to borrow language from common wedding vows. It should also be true in times of prosperity or in debt—regardless of which partner is able to earn an income.
Financial power imbalance due to job status or lack thereof is a modern reality for many couples, that can be addressed productively through open communication between partners or through professional counseling. In either case, the goal is to address underlying resentment or perceived inadequacy in a safe environment where feelings can be explored safely, non-judgmentally, and lovingly.
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[i] MacMillan, Ross, and Rosemary Gartner. 1999. “When She Brings Home the Bacon: Labor-Force Participation and the Risk of Spousal Violence against Women.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 61 (4): 947–58. doi:10.2307/354015.
[ii] Tandrayen-Ragoobur, Verena. 2020. “Intimate Partner Violence and Women’s Labour Force Participation in Sub Saharan Africa.” Community, Work & Family 23 (1): 19–43. doi:10.1080/13668803.2018.1540400.