Since the ‘60s the male provider role has been under assault. Associated with the strongly bi-furcated gendered division of labor which has come to prevail in the West, it is blamed for hegemonic masculinity—a term used to describe the problems that have followed from that. However, what I want to suggest here is that we should not hurry to label the provider role as a problem. As I argue in my chapter recently published in The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health, male provisioning is actually closely associated with and an expression of responsive masculinity, that aspect of the male psyche that responds to the needs of partner and offspring. Not only is male providing an expression of male nurturing behavior, the providing actually generates the nurturing. The bad publicity has been undeserved.
In 1981 Jessie Bernard wrote an influential paper on the provider role which set the terms of the debate. She explained that the provider role “delineated relationships within a marriage and family in a way that added to the legal, religious, and other advantages men had over women.” She explained how it was psychologically crippling for women:
The wife of a more successful provider became for all intents and purposes a parasite, with little to do except indulge or pamper herself. The psychology of such dependence could become all but crippling.”1
Others took up the baton. An influential report in the U.K. attributed both marital breakdown and fathers abandoning their children to male support for the family.2 A United Nations report suggested that it encouraged domestic violence.3
The belief that male support for the family is essentially harmful has helped to propel forward many of our policies here in the U.K. This belief underpins the urgency of the equality agenda and the importance attached to ensuring that women have equal representation in the workplace and equal earnings while surprisingly little attention is given to the financial rewards of men’s work. It has also underpinned a huge swathe of welfare benefits created to ensure that females do not need to depend on direct male support.
The Mystery of Male Altruism
There is little evidence to justify why the provider role has been held in such low regard. The more unpleasant, dangerous and demanding the job, the more likely it is to be done by a man. And while men earn more than women there have traditionally been strong, legally enforced obligations on men throughout the ages to support and provide for women with the result that women spend most of the money earned by men.4 If we look at the creation and movement of resources from men to women, the provider role looks like an altruistic mechanism and it is this possibility I would like to explore.
For men, earning money appears to be strongly linked to reproduction. A number of studies show that men who have partners are more likely to be employed than men who don’t have partners,5 married men earn more than men who are cohabiting and men who are married and living with their own children have the biggest wage premiums of all. The same studies provide evidence to suggest that this is not simply a case of selection bias. Relationship opportunities promote productivity and increased productivity promotes relationships.
The relationships of men who earn decent wages are more likely to transition to marriage: once married, those relationships appear more stable. There is also some evidence to suggest that men with traditional gender role attitudes i.e. those who anticipate providing are more likely to be involved in childcare as well.
As mentioned, this male support for the family appears to be an altruistic activity as most of male earnings are spent on the family and often controlled by mothers6—although this may have been more the case in our recent past when women were more dependent on men.
In order to understand the mystery of male altruism I turn in my chapter to studies of evolution. This is because evolutionary psychology and anthropology have devoted a great deal of attention to the parallel question of paternal investment, that is why human males almost alone of all the primate species stay around to care for their children.
Paternal investment coincided with enormous increases in brain size which began to exceed the capacity limits of the birth canal. This in turn was related to the bipedalism which made the birth canal narrower. Human physiology accommodated this problem by timing childbirth earlier in our development. According to Finkel and Eastwick, compared to other primates humans are born 12 months premature.7 This means that human infants are completely dependent on an adult carer for a much longer period of time than other primates and during this time the caregiver’s capacity to seek resources is significantly compromised. These large brains also require copious amounts of fat which human mothers need to provide through their milk which adds to the burden of care.8 Human mothers required significant levels of support to be able to feed both their offspring and themselves and are particularly dependent on help from those around them. Anthropologists have coined the term “alloparent” for those who help provide this care.9 While there has been extensive discussion about who these alloparents are, and it is accepted that other women and children play a significant role, various lines of analysis have converged on the view that paternal investment was crucial to infant survival. Paternal investment was secured through pair bonding and various suggestions have been put forward about how this pair bonding occurred.10
Male Responsiveness as a Precursor to Paternal Investment
Viewed in this light one can see that the evolutionary pressure was for men to be particularly responsive to the needs and demands of women. It was responsive masculinity which facilitated paternal investment and which in the long run helped their infants (and their genes) to survive.
Psychological clues in support of this hypothesis suggest that I am not far off the mark. Firstly, it emerges that although men and women appear to experience emotions similarly there are gender differences in how emotions are expressed. Women are more emotionally expressive with the presence of familiar others acting as an eliciting stimulus.11 What these emotions appear to be doing is enabling the rapid translation of cognitive information into a form of behavior which will spur others (often men) into action. Often these actions are altruistic in that they do not appear to have any immediate benefit for the actor but will facilitate the perpetuation of his or her genes
This may be encouraged by the higher levels of empathic responsiveness which men have towards women than they do towards other men. In fact, just as male empathic responsiveness towards females is increasing, their empathy for other males goes down. This fits in evolutionary predictions. The process begins in puberty when one can see how an increasing responsiveness to females is likely to further a male’s reproductive fitness as he will be motivated to meet female needs. At the same time a decreasing empathy for other males facilitates their ability to compete with other men for these females.12
One of the clearest products of male responsiveness is provisioning behavior. Ultimately this has been encouraged by females: males are responding to female demand. Evidence from some of the most extensive social and psychological surveys suggest that women attach much more importance to their mate’s capacity to earn than men do.13 And when men are good financial prospects these relationships are more likely to transition to marriage and these marriages to last.14
The Provider Role as the Cornerstone on Which Paternal Involvement Is Built
However, the capacity to provide material goods is not the central and most important aspect of fatherhood. Rather I argue that this capacity to provide secures men a place within the family which then creates the opportunity for further paternal behaviors.
These are helped along because men appear to be primed to have a nurturing response to their infants. For example, men listening to cries from their own infants experienced increased activation in several brain areas including the hypothalamus which has an important role in the release of hormones and therefore will have indirect impacts on behavior. Fathers’ brains also responded differently to images of their own babies compared to unrelated babies showing that babies are a salient stimulus for men.15 Perhaps most importantly research from North America finds that fathers have lower levels of testosterone.16 Other research establishes that committed fatherhood actually causes men’s testosterone levels to drop. Lower levels of testosterone result in increased paternal response in men.
What we can see, therefore, is the biological mechanism underlying the observable change in behavior. The very act of providing for mate and offspring may be the mechanism by which dominant, mate-seeking masculinity becomes responsive and nurturing. Following from this we can see that male providing, far from being a dominance behavior as assumed by Bernard and others, emerges from the male nurturing repertoire.
Barry and Owens explain in their chapter in the same volume that while men are in the stage of mate seeking, i.e. before they have settled into a long-term committed relationship, they have higher levels of testosterone which facilitate dominance striving behaviors. These dominance striving behaviors can take on a very wide variety of forms depending on cultural context. For example, they may involve costly signaling, creative outputs or pro-social behaviors depending on what is valued in the society in which they are produced.
Striving for dominance does not typically involve aggressive behaviors unless other channels for dominance display are unavailable, status has been severely threatened or hierarchies have broken down. However, once men are in a committed relationship, and even more so when they are in a committed relationship in which they have fathered children, their levels of testosterone go down thereby priming them for fatherhood. This shadows the relationship mentioned earlier between male family commitment and male productive activity.
Observable changes in behavior are often associated with biochemical markers. In the particular situation that we are considering, the transition from mate-seeking to mate-supporting behavior, we should not be surprised that this is associated with reduced testosterone levels.
It would be interesting to find out whether the male productive activity following from committed family relationships is also accompanied by the lower levels of testosterone which often accompany fatherhood and facilitate paternal responsiveness. If male productive activity in this context is accompanied by lower levels of testosterone it could be seen as signaling a different “order” of behavior; the male nurturing as hypothesized here, rather than the dominance striving response.
Whether it did so would be influenced by the cultural context in which it occurred. For, as Gray and Anderson explain, fatherhood is not always associated with lower levels of testosterone.17 The association is more likely to occur in monogamous settings and where men are expected to be to some degree involved in the care of their children. It could be socially useful to find out the constellation of circumstances in which male provisioning is accompanied by a decline in testosterone and therefore could signal a form of nurturing behavior. A possible hypothesis following from this could be that where men perceive that their productive behavior has a key role in provisioning the family it could be accompanied by a decline in testosterone. Where men see their productive activity as subsidiary and non-essential the testosterone decline may be moderated.
This discussion is based on my chapter of the same title in The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health where it is discussed in more depth. As we can see, a serious analysis of hegemonic and responsive masculinity makes us unable to ignore the strong link between these two aspects of male behavior. That link, and the biochemical changes associated with these behaviors are, as discussed, worth further investigation.
But, if the ideas outlined here are even partially verified they have implications for the impact of current social changes on men. For example, will men who are unable to engage in any form of provisioning activity be equally good at other forms of nurturing? Where channels for constructive forms of dominance striving have been removed how will this impact on men? What impact will being removed from a nurturing, committed relationship have on men’s motivation to provide?
The most important point to take away from this is that the male provider role is not something which we can simply label hegemonic and therefore seek to dispense with. Rather it is a counterpart of responsive masculinity and therefore a deeply rooted and invaluable part of human male behavior. Attempts to ignore male providing, or destroy it without fully understanding it, will, I suspect, incur a terrible human cost.
1 Bernard, J., 1981. The rise and fall of the good provider-role. American Psychologist, 36(1), pp.1-12.
2 Coote, A., Harman, H. and Hewitt, P., 1990. The Family Way: A new approach to policy-making. Institute for public policy research.
3 Report of the Expert Group Meeting on Violence in the Family with Special Emphasis on its Effects on Wome. Vienna, 8-12 December 1986.
4 Van Creveld, M., 2013. The privileged sex. DLVC Enterprises.
5 Dench, G., 2017. What Women Want: Evidence from British Social Attitudes. Routledge.
6 Pahl, J., 1995. His money, her money: Recent research on financial organisation in marriage. Journal of economic psychology, 16(3), pp.361-376. See page 364
7 Finkel, E. J., & Eastwick, P. W. (2015). Attachment and pairbonding. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 3, 7-11.
8 Lieberman, D., 2014. The story of the human body: evolution, health, and disease. Vintage.
9 Hrdy, S.B., 1999. Mother nature: A history of mothers, infants, and natural selection. New York, p.315.
10 Geary, D. C. (2000). Evolution and proximate expression of human paternal investment. Psychological bulletin, 126(1), 55.
11 Lennon, R. and Eisenberg, N., 1987. Gender and age differences in empathy and sympathy. Empathy and its development, pp.195-217.
12 Endresen, I.M. and Olweus, D., 2001. Self-reported empathy in Norwegian adolescents: Sex differences, age trends, and relationship to bullying.
13 Buss, D.M., 1989. Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and brain sciences, 12(1), pp.1-14.
14 Xie, Y., Raymo, J.M., Goyette, K. and Thornton, A., 2003. Economic potential and entry into marriage and cohabitation. Demography, 40(2), pp.351-367.
15 Swain, J.E., Lorberbaum, J.P., Kose, S. and Strathearn, L., 2007. Brain basis of early parent–infant interactions: psychology, physiology, and in vivo functional neuroimaging studies. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 48(3‐4), pp.262-287.
16 Storey, A.E., Walsh, C.J., Quinton, R.L. and Wynne-Edwards, K.E., 2000. Hormonal correlates of paternal responsiveness in new and expectant fathers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21(2), pp.79-95.
17 Gray, P.B. and Anderson, K.G., 2010. Fatherhood: Evolution and human paternal behavior. Harvard University Press.