The ‘supportive husband’ – change and continuity among men who partner women with career jobs

The ‘supportive husband’ – change and continuity among men who partner women with career jobs

Anna Sofie Bach

In Denmark, like in many other Western countries, you often come across the narrative that gender equality has already been achieved. Consequently, much feminist scholarship has been preoccupied with demonstrating how gendered inequalities persist and how gendered idea(l)s shape the lives of women (and men). Heterosexual marriage and family life have been at the centre of such enquiries given they are found to be pivotal points for the (re)production of gendered power relations.  In fact, several studies in the Scandinavian region have demonstrated how contemporary heterosexual coupledom practices are often informed by conflicting ideals in relation to equality and gender complementarity (Bach 2017; Farstad & Steffanson 2015; Magnusson 2005).

If we take a quick statistical glance as the (re)distribution of work and care in Danish families, we see that the gender gap has decreased significantly over the past 50 years. Not only are most families arranged as dual-earner households today, but men are also participating much more in the home, especially around the care of children. However, despite this, Danish women still spend on average almost an hour more everyday on housework and childcare than men. Furthermore, housework is still gendered in that men and women take on different tasks in the home, and Danish women take 91 % of the relatively generous arrangements for parental leave. Yet, overall, the distribution between paid work and housework is equalizing, when compared to earlier generations and Danish women are, in general, not doing ‘the second shift’ at home, as described by Arlie Hochschild in the 1980’s. When Danish women work more outside the home, they work less at home. And in these situations, their male partners do more.

While it is important to acknowledge that inequalities persist, feminist theorizations emphasize that gender is a historical and contextual practice, and thus, while everyday practices often reproduce gendered power relations, they are also always open to reorganisation and subversion. My work has focused on how gendered meanings are potentially destabilized in the current moment, whether new family practices are emerging, how they are negotiated and how diverse everyday arrangements are becoming increasingly culturally intelligible. In feminist theorizing, I argue there continues to be a gap in examining how men contribute to the ‘undoing of gender’ as well as for understanding the constitution of non-dominant masculinities.

My PhD examined the potential emergence of new forms of masculinities in relation to the everyday practices in Danish heterosexual couples.  I focused on men who partner women holding so-called ‘career-jobs’ (high-income professions, long hours, management responsibilities), and was particularly interested in ‘the cultural work’, necessary for these men to construct themselves, their lives and their (love) relationship as socially intelligible. I thus interviewed 22 men in relationships with ‘career’ women and explored their stories about daily life, the career-orientation of their partner, how the men created meaning around not only their busy everyday schedules and family life, but also of themselves as ‘men’.

Overall the men’s stories I elicited in my research can be can be categorized as falling into two positions being taken up: ‘running the family’ and ‘50/50 advocacy’. While most of the men interviewed talked about sharing the work with their partner whichever positions they took – the ‘running the family’ positioning deserves specific analytical attention.  It is within these stories of non-traditionally asymmetrical divisions of labour that I most clearly see the emergence of non-dominant and caregiving-focused forms of masculinities. It is here the cultural work necessary for producing culturally intelligible identities becomes specifically visible.

The men who produced narratives of ‘running the family’ made a point of saying they had taken on the lion’s share of the housework because their partner worked much more than they did. On an everyday level, this meant that they ended up taking, what one of the interviewees called, the ‘default responsibilities’ for children, food preparation and general household management.  This was necessary if their partner was travelling or had to work late to meet deadlines. Such an asymmetrical division of labour was naturalised as needed in order to ‘make it work’.  In turn, these men often explained this because their own jobs were less demanding or because they were not pursuing ‘careers’ in the same sense themselves. Critically, however, the asymmetrical division of labour is positioned not just as a necessity, but also as a choice by the male partner. Here, Nikolaj, whose partner is away from Monday to Thursday most weeks, says: “I don’t have one of those jobs. And I guess you could say that this is something I chose (…) But we also have an agreement that if some day I find a job that demands something else, well then we’ll have to reorganize and figure out how to do things differently.”

Nikolaj’s account illuminates a contractual element in the production of the narrative of ‘running the family’ found in my research. In the context of asymmetrical relationship, the narrative of choice works to affirm the interviewee’s autonomy by underlining how he could have chosen otherwise. On the one hand, this can be understood as a performance of masculinity, as positioning oneself as independent – a central trait of late-modern masculinity as also described by other researchers. On the other hand, the accounts of the contract are also stories of a ‘we’ that choses. Arguably, the underlying plotline of the contractual choice position also works to restore the asymmetrical arrangements as intelligible within a context where mutuality and equality are the cultural ideals of family and coupledom life. ‘We might not divide the work equally, but we are in this together’ the narrative affirms.

Interestingly, the men who position themselves as ‘running the family’ not only frame this as a necessary arrangement, but also as somewhat desirable. The desirability is emphasized through stories about involved fatherhood.  Thus, men who are ‘running the family’ are enabled to build intimate relationships with their children. Kristoffer, for instance, explains how he has “been able to invest much more time in them [the children]. This means that I probably have a closer relationship with my children than the ordinary man. At least from such a young age, you know. Because on the everyday level, I’ve been the primary caregiver. In this sense, it’s [the household arrangement] been a positive choice that I wanted”. Other researchers have pointed to how the notions of quality time and ideals of intensive parenting are particularly strong among the middle class, which arguably add value to the positioning as an involved father among the interviewed men and render their ‘choice’ meaningful (for a discussion see Bach 2015; Forsberg 2009).

While all the men in the study ascribed value to spending time with their children, fathers drawing mainly on a ‘50/50 advocacy’ narrative emphasised the importance of sharing the workload. Here, asymmetrical divisions of labour are in fact cast as unfair. ‘50/50 advocacy’ appear as narratives of adaptation, where men position themselves as supporting their partner’s career by doing what they see as being half of the housework, thereby allowing her the necessary flexibility to excel in her work life.  These accounts stress that mutuality means equal sharing; that neither of the partners have the freedom to steer their own course.

Importantly, in the ‘50/50 advocacy’ narrative, the men sought to provide detailed accounts of how the work was split (equally) during Sunday ‘meetings’ where task and chores were listed and delegated, where the burden of, for example, grocery shopping over laundry was weighted against each other to make sure no partner ended up with an unfair distribution, and how electronic calendars were used to synchronize across both partners’ schedules. Previous research has found that not only is men’s participation in the home often over-reported (Press & Townsley 1998; Magnusson 2006 also discuss this in the Nordic context), women are also often in charge of the overall organizing and delegating of tasks. In the ‘50/50 advocacy’ narrative, joint practices of distribution and delegation are highlighted emphasising how, within the context of women’s career orientation, the many chores and responsibilities of family life are being made more visible. While such practices hold a subversive potential, it is also noticeable how many of these couples availed themselves of paid household services (cleaning, food delivery etc.) and many draw on the help of grandparents in relation to childcare. Not only does this highlight a class privilege that is drawn on by this group of high-end income families, it also make it easier to perform the ideal of equal sharing.

Overall, the study illuminates how, at least in the context of Danish women who are pursuing careers – housework and childcare is becoming ‘de-gendered’ in some families. For some of the men – homemaking, and especially parenting, becomes a position from which they form an identity. However, while women’s career orientation leaves open a space for men to (re)construct themselves as caregivers in ways that potentially transforms what it means to be a father and a husband, it is also necessary to highlight the ambivalences many of these new practices throw up, and question the extent to which these narratives are suggestive of both continuity and change. Becoming socially intelligible as the husband who supports his wife’s career is not necessarily an easy position to take and maintain.  My male participants’ narratives were underwritten by efforts to demonstrate their autonomy, and thus masculinity in a more traditional sense.  Research of this kind is critical as part of efforts to examine how policy and cultural changes may open up possibilities for the promotion of gender equality across different societies and groups.

Bach, A.S. (2015). Between Necessity and delight. Negotiating Involved Fatherhood among Career Couples in Denmark. Women Gender and Research 24(1).
Bach, A.S (2017). The Ambiguous Construction of Non dominant Masculinity: Configuring the “New” Man through Narratives of Choice, Involved Fatherhood and Gender Equality. Men and Masculinities (online first).
Farstad, G.R & Steffansen, K. (2015). Involved Fatherhood in the Nordic Context: dominant narratives, divergent approaches. Norma 10(1).
Forsberg, L. (2009): Involved Parenting: Everyday Lives in Swedish Middle-Class Families. Doctoral Thesis. Linköping University.
Magnusson, E. (2005). Gendering or Equality in the Lives of Nordic Heterosexual Couples with Children: No Well‐Paved Avenues Yet». NORA: Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies 13 (3).Press, J. E., & Townsley, E. (1998). Wives’ And Husbands’ Housework Reporting: Gender, Class, and Social Desirability. Gender & Society, 12(2).


Anna Sofie Bach holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Copenhagen. She is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southern Denmark. Her research interests span gender studies and family sociology to reproductive technologies and feminist STS.

Image: Purchased from Colourbox