Despite a tenacious gender pay gap, nearly one-third of U.S. women in heterosexual couples now earn more than their spouse or partner, according to a survey by UBS.

Yet even in these households, traditional gender roles and biases separate these high-earning breadwinners from the financial engagement that should accompany the weight of their paycheck, the survey found.

“We recognized that women are contributing more to their household incomes than ever before, and we wanted to understand whether this increasing financial clout translated to increased financial participation in terms of involvement in decisions around what to do with the money that women are earning,” said Carey Shuffman, head of UBS’ Women's Segment, of the survey “Own Your Worth: Tradition, Trust and Time.”

“We found that women primary earners tend to be less engaged in both the short- and long-term financial decisions around where the money they're earning is going when compared to men primary earners,” she said during a press event for the survey's publication.

The survey, conducted in January, polled 809 high-earning women and men in heterosexual relationships (and women in same-sex relationships) where the breadwinning female made at least $175,000 a year.

For example, only 52% of female breadwinners took the lead investment decisions that affected heterosexual couples, compared with 83% of male breadwinners. Only 48% of female breadwinners handle the financial planning decisions in these relationships, compared with 78% of male breadwinners. And only 40% of these women drove the estate planning, wills and trusts decisions, compared with 66% of their male counterparts.

“If money is power, why aren't more women breadwinners exercising it? And what forces are potentially holding women back from participating in these decisions?” Shuffman asked. “While some of the challenges we found were less pronounced for women in same-sex couples, we found three key reasons, as the title of the report aptly states, for the disparity between women and men breadwinners.”

Traditional Gender Roles
While 87% of men who are primary earners said they preferred it, and 73% thought that status meant they should also make the financial decisions, the female breadwinners polled felt very differently about holding the power of the purse.

Only 49% of these women preferred being the primary earner, and only 52% of them thought it meant they should also lead on financial decisions, the survey found.

Further illustrating this ambivalence, a U.S. Census study in 2018 found that in these relationships, both spouses or partners often misrepresented their earnings to inflate the man’s earnings and deflate the woman’s earnings, compared to what they report on their tax return.

Meanwhile, the UBS survey found that 50% of breadwinning women have friends and family who assume their male partner is the primary earner—and have never corrected that assumption.

“It’s interesting that so much of the research is about, or seems to me to be about, the lack of confidence in women to make financial decisions. And particularly, it's the tactical level around investments,” said Mark Wilkins, a UBS advisor based in St. Louis. “But I think you can flip that upside down and really look at it as the over-confidence of men. I find that women breadwinners and investors tend to be extremely thoughtful, both technically and strategically.”

Wilkins said the contrast with same-sex couples is evidence that the dynamic of the heterosexual relationship can play a large part in whether a breadwinning woman is engaged or not.

“I have several same-sex, lesbian couples as clients, and in each case the breadwinner is a CEO of a company, and in each case a tech company at that,” he said. “What’s also interesting is in each case many of the financial decisions are not made by the breadwinner, they're delegated. I look at that as another example of women excelling at leadership.”

In these relationships, he continued, the primary earner is comfortable in her position and trusting enough of her partner to delegate both short- and long-term financial decisions so she can focus on her job.

“I think that is really interesting within female same-sex couples, and something you don't typically see in in heterosexual couples,” he said. “When a male is the breadwinner, there’s much less delegation.”

As a counterpoint, women in same-sex relationships were also surveyed, to see how their experiences as primary earners compared to that of the straight women respondents.

The results showed that while all women breadwinners do have some common challenges, other challenges were specific to the traditional gender roles among mixed-sex couple.

“For example, societal assumptions or partner insecurities around earning status were less apparent among women primary and non-primary earners in same-sex couples,” the report said. “Women primary earners in same-sex couples also expressed greater confidence in making long-term financial decisions than women breadwinners in heterosexual couples.”

A Lack Of Trust And Time
The insecurities harbored by a female breadwinner’s male partner cause tensions in the relationship beyond the issue of who makes what, the survey found.

For example, 66% of men who are not the primary earner worry about their partner’s spending habits, 62% try to hold their partner back from spending money and 55% said they worried about their partner’s investing habits. Meanwhile, when a woman is in a “traditional” relationship where her male spouse is the primary earner, 22% of them worry about their partner’s spending habits, 37% try to hold their partner back from spending money and 16% said they worried about their partner’s investing habits.

And despite their status, women primary earners still are responsible for more than half of the household chores, according to the survey. Women breadwinners handle childcare 55% of the time, laundry 52% of the time and cooking 51% of the time, while male breadwinners do the same slightly more than 30% of the time.

The time spend on those household responsibilities reduces the amount of time women primary earners have for financial matters, the report said.

Brenda O’Connor, a UBS advisor based in Miami, said this barrier of time resonated strongly through her own experience and practice, which has evolved in the last seven years from being heavily weighted toward male CEOs, entrepreneurs and hedge fund managers to including more female founders, senior managing partners and CEOs.

“I see it in my own life. Time’s my big barrier. That's my big constraint, and that's probably what I personally need help with,” she said. “But the fact that it is a well-researched insight from 800 different conversations reinforces that going forward I’m going to concertedly look for and find ways to make that less of a barrier to engagement for my female breadwinning clients.”

Advisors Can Help
Financial advisors do have a role to play in raising the engagement of women, especially since at some point 80% of women will be managing all their financial decisions on their own and the highest priorities for this demographic are retirement planning, keeping an emergency fund and tax planning, the report said.

Despite those interests, only 44% of the women in the survey said they felt treated the same as male clients by the industry as a whole. Instead, 64% said the industry has been patronizing to women and 63% said the industry has catered mainly to men. Another 57% said their advisor assumed their male partner was the primary earner until corrected.

“Financial professionals can help women breadwinners by seeking to understand the family income dynamics, setting assumptions aside, looking for ways to reduce the time burden of financial engagement and pursuing a comprehensive goals-based financial planning approach,” Shuffman said. “We see this latest research as a critical way to point out the existing challenges in the hopes of collectively working to correct this imbalance."