Working Women & Gender Roles: Female Breadwinners in African Households

Female breadwinning in Africa has been a growing trend. According to research, 80% of African women in the low-income bracket are the sole breadwinners for their families through trading, farming, and small businesses. Mega-cities with their rising costs of living also continue to propel female breadwinning. Yet, there are negative attitudes to this reality. What are the factors driving this trend? How is it manifesting? What is the way forward? This article dives deeper into this phenomenon of female breadwinners and gender roles.

Woman working outside

Did you know: About 38% of homes in South Africa have female breadwinners

Background & shift

If you’re familiar with the societal expectations of men and women, especially in Africa, you might know that the standard is gendered responsibilities. Typically, men are in charge of the monetary needs of the household while women oversee upkeep and care. This stems from traditional understandings of distinct roles in the family. As the head of the household, a man is to provide everything for his family while the woman supports his efforts because he is solely responsible for their wellbeing. This is changing though, due to a shift in society. What is driving this shift? Harsh economic conditions and a change in the labor market seem to be the top factors. Women’s labor is increasingly acknowledged and families are now in need of as much income as they can get in order to survive and thrive. In fact, women-headed households belong to the poorest socio-economic part of the society in most countries.

Woman hawks plantains on the road

“The findings show a shift in the traditional earning dynamic between couples and reveal the common assumption that male partners are the higher earners is becoming outdated.”

Double Trouble


Studies show that a lot of these breadwinners have many children and little formal education. While they are often single, either divorced or widows, those who are partnered often report that having a male partner doesn’t ease the double load of working in and outside the home. Breadwinning is different in these cases because it usually requires taking on both kinds of work. In other words, female breadwinners often take care of the bills and raise the children as well—which means the responsibilities aren’t simply changing hands but falling solely on women. 

The role reversal can also cause a lot of tension in the home and community. Any change in cultural norms is hard to accept, and when the change challenges something as personal as one's place in society, frustration and resentment become common. Women constantly report that their role as breadwinners is viewed as threatening to their husbands or the other men in their lives. This threat can result in danger and a hostile living environment for women, e.g. violence and abuse.

Man and woman in a tense situation

“The women tended to take on a double burden of work and family responsibilities, as most were single. This meant ignoring their own needs.”

Around the world

Interestingly, research by the Center for American Progress recorded that about 41% of mothers in the U.S. were sole or primary breadwinners. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) on behalf of Royal London also found that women out-earn male partners in almost a quarter of households. Other similar stats can be found around the world, which means this is a worldwide phenomenon with shared struggles. 

Woman cuts cake with daughter

It’s common across the board that financial liberation in the form of breadwinning is hardly a path to emancipation for women. From the double load to the consequences of role reversal, women globally are still far away from gender parity. African nations and communities, like the rest of the world, need a shift in socio-cultural behaviors alongside the shift happening economically in order to make things better for working women.

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