Breadwinner Bonus and Caregiver Penalty in Workplace Rewards for Men and Women

When working mothers are seen as breadwinners, they are offered higher salaries and more leadership training opportunities in the workplace. 


Unlike fathers, mothers face discrimination in hiring, salary, and leadership opportunities in the workplace. The popular assumption is that parenthood makes men more committed to their work and women less committed. Meanwhile, conventional gender roles cast men as breadwinners and women as caregivers. As the providers for the family, breadwinners are seen as prioritizing their work – in contrast with caregivers, who are seen as valuing family above work.  Social role theory suggests that workplace discrimination occurs when gender roles and work roles conflict.

Here, rather than exclusively focusing on a parent’s gender, the authors ran two studies looking at how assumptions about the roles of breadwinner and caregiver can explain workplace discrimination. The authors hypothesized that the more someone assumes that men are breadwinners and women are caregivers, the more they will discriminate towards women on salary offers, career-advancing leadership training opportunities, or flextime offers that hurt their chances for promotion. In the studies, participants playing the role of job recruiters were instructed to make an attractive offer to a qualified job applicant, accompanied by information on the applicant’s gender and family role. The researchers then compared offers depending on the gender and family role of the applicant.


Working mothers received worse job offer packages because of the popular assumption that women are not breadwinners.

  • Participants were more likely to rate a male applicant as being the primary breadwinner compared to a female applicant (5.19 vs. 3.86 on a 7-point scale).
  • Overall, participants offered mothers lower salaries than fathers ($59,319.25 vs. $59,861.95 on a $55,000-$70,000 range).
  • Participants offered mothers more career-dampening flextime.
    • In the first study, participants’ instructions explained that flexible work options limit face time at the office and can negatively effect future promotions.
    • In response, participants were more likely to offer this “perk” to mothers than fathers. (4.55 vs. 3.80 on a 7-point scale).
  • Notably, the job offer packages for mothers improved when participants saw the mothers as breadwinners.
    • Mothers seen as breadwinners were more likely to receive higher salary offers.
      • Breadwinning mothers were offered salaries on par with breadwinning fathers ($62,128.57 vs. $61,643.24 on a $55,000-$85,000 range).
      • Breadwinning mothers were offered better compensation than caregiving mothers ($60,431.90), women with an unspecified family role ($60,186.95), and women who were not parents ($60,648.97).
    • Similarly, mothers seen as breadwinners were more likely to be offered leadership training.
      • Breadwinning mothers received leadership training on par with breadwinning fathers (5.07 vs. 4.56 on a 7-point scale).
      • Breadwinning mothers were more likely to receive leadership training than caregiving mothers (4.27) and women with an unspecified family role (4.47).
    • Although fathers seen as caregivers were offered more flextime, they were offered salaries and leadership training at the same level as fathers seen as breadwinners, meaning that overall, unlike mothers seen as caregivers, fathers were not penalized for this family role.

In short, these findings indicate that the perception of mothers as breadwinners can reduce financial discrimination in the workplace, as well as increase leadership opportunities for them.


In the first study, 475 participants (38% women) were randomly assigned to read about an identical female or male job candidate. Participants played the role of a manager recruiting for a product manager position. They were asked to make an attractive job offer by considering salary and career-dampening flextime as incentives that might matter to a candidate that was married with two children. Participants reviewed the candidate’s resume, interview notes, former manager’s comments, and application. Participants structured an offer and then completed questionsn on whether they thought the candidate was their family’s breadwinner or caretaker.

The 482 participants (45% women) for the second study were offered slightly expanded options. In terms of recruiting incentives, flextime was not described as career-dampening, and career-enhancing leadership training was added in. Participants were randomly assigned to read about a male or female candidate that was described as follows: either a parent and caregiver,  a parent and breadwinner, a parent with no specified family role, or not a parent. All candidates were described as parents, and all candidates described as parents were described as having two children.

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