Men's violence and emotional abuse against women increases when women become breadwinners

Men’s violence and emotional abuse against women increases when women become breadwinners


Men are more likely to perpetrate violence against their female partner if she earns more than half of the household income, a ground-breaking Australian study has revealed.

According to the study, women who are breadwinners are 35 per cent more likely to experience partner violence and are 20 per cent more likely to experience emotional abuse from their male partner.

The study from the Australian National University, that used surveys done by the Australian Bureau of Statistics over more than a decade, said that these findings are present across different ages, income groups, cultural and educational backgrounds.

The research highlights the potential danger women in heterosexual relationships face when the traditional “male breadwinner norm” is violated. It describes what is known as the “male backlash” phenomenon, that presents itself as men’s increased abuse towards women, in response to women’s increasing economic power.

ANU Researchers Robert Breunig and Yinjunjie Zhang write that there is little evidence in their research that women’s bargaining power in a relationship increases as they earn more, relative to their male partner. Instead, it suggests that in Australia, violating gender norms in terms of earning capacity can increase men’s violence and abuse.

“We present graphical evidence which suggests that, in Australia, a gender norm explanation for physical violence and emotional abuse is stronger than a bargaining story,” they wrote.

“As women’s share of household income increases, but remains below one-half, there is no change in the experience of physical and emotional abuse.

“Only when the gender norm is violated do we see an increase in the incidence of physical violence and emotional abuse.”

There was no increase in violence or emotional abuse against men by women, when women earned more than half of the household income.

The study also notes relevant previous research, which found women in Australia show a surprising aversion to violating the norms surrounding the tradition of the male breadwinner.

“In Australia, 32 per cent of women agree with the statement: “If a woman earns more than her husband, it’s almost certain to cause a problem,” the study notes.

“Many couples choose to have male earnings slightly larger than female earnings whereas relatively few have female earnings just larger than male earnings. This is further evidence for Australia that couples are reticent to violate the gender norm of male breadwinning.”

The ANU study utilised the Personal Safety Survey administered by the ABS, a population-wide survey which picked up on a much wider range of violence and abuse against women than previous studies. Other studies have tended to have smaller focuses, for example, on disadvantaged groups or events like hospitalisation.

The researchers note in their conclusion that it’s important to recognise simply increasing women’s economic power may not be effective in reducing violence against women, and that governments may need to influence broader cultural change around gender norms.

“Thinking about how to design child care policy, parental leave policy and family payments policy to allow gender norms to evolve alongside greater gender equality in work and income seems like a clear policy direction,” they suggest.

“Policies to assist women in leaving abusive relationships may also help.”

If you or someone you know is impacted by family and domestic violence or sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit

You can also call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.

In an emergency, call 000.

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