A notable recent example of how men react to a threat to their masculinity comes from a survey experiment that I carried out with my colleagues at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind poll. The experiment was embedded in a standard political survey with one unusual question, which asked married or cohabitating respondents if they earned more, less, or about the same as their spouses. Half of the respondents were randomly assigned to get this question early on in the survey, and half were assigned to get it only at the end of the survey.
Now, this question wasn’t there because we cared about the actual answers. We know that about 15% of U.S. men make less than their spouses do — a figure that’s highly dependent on age, with younger men being much more likely than older men to earn the same or less than their spouses. The reason we asked the question was to push men to think about potential threats to their gender roles. Being the breadwinner has been a linchpin of U.S. men’s masculinity for decades, so even the potential of making less than one’s spouse threatens accepted gender roles.