From Hegemonic to Responsive Masculinity: The Transformative Power of the Provider Role

  • Belinda BrownEmail author


This article proposes that ‘responsive’ masculinity provides a more accurate description of male behaviour than ‘hegemonic’ masculinity. This becomes apparent if we look at the provider role which can be seen as an expression of male responsiveness to female ‘need’. It is suggested that male responsiveness is an evolved trait. It is manifested in the higher levels of empathy which males have for females which are partly stimulated by greater female emotional expressivity. The provider role facilitates reproduction by encouraging males to engage in provisioning activities in response to female preferences. Once men reproduce the provisioning role acts to tie them into families, encourage attachment through the experience of having others dependent on them and kickstarts neuroendocrine responses through pairbonding and fatherhood. As an expression of male responsive behaviour and a catalyst for further nurturing behaviour, the provider role is seen as the cornerstone on which fathering is built.


Evolutionary psychology Responsive masculinity Provider role 


In recent decades the concept of hegemonic masculinity has developed as a theoretical umbrella to explain negative aspects of masculinity, for example, higher levels of male violence and the processes through which men are believed to maintain power and dominance over women. This was theorised by Connell in his book Masculinities (1995). More recently Kimmel, abandoning the language of toxic masculinity and replacing it with the concept of “aggrieved entitlement”, has done much to keep the idea of masculinity as potentially damaging to “women, children, men, and all other living things” alive (Kimmel and Wade 2018).

The breadwinner or provider role is central to the concept of hegemonic masculinity providing a link through which the male’s privileged position in relation to the means of production enables men to maintain control over women. The provider role is understood to have placed women in a particularly vulnerable position, depriving them of opportunities to develop strength and competence and productive skills. It is seen as equally detrimental to men, removing them from the family into the workplace, thereby damaging the possibility of developing intimate relationships and hindering male emotional expression, as a man is valued only for what he can provide (Bernard 1981).

Qualitative research on low income male providers finds that having to fulfil the provider role prevents fathers from being emotionally and physically present for their children because of the time they have to spend at work. They are marginalised as fathers and stigmatized by the courts, the mother and society when they can’t provide (Bryan 2013).

My goal in this chapter is not to deny these arguments, which contain much that is valid. Rather I would like to demonstrate that the provider role is a product of male responsiveness. This responsiveness is an evolved trait which is reflected in gender differences in empathy and emotion. As such the provider role gives men a crucial place in family life from which the pairbond can strengthen and attachment to offspring develop. This is facilitated by the male neuroendocrine system which appears to be designed to encourage male responsiveness to cues from partner and children. By playing a role within the family men’s testosterone driven impulses towards status seeking and male competition are transformed into responsive nurturing behaviour. Securing themselves a place in family life through this process allows the real fathering work to be done. The importance of the breadwinner role to the development of fatherly work is demonstrated by the greater parental involvement of fathers who have traditional values than fathers who don’t. It is vital that these processes are thoroughly analysed and understood before the provider role is further undermined.

Evolutionary psychology will be used to show the desire to provide is both a product of male responsiveness and facilitates male responsiveness and nurturing behaviour. According to evolutionary theory, homo sapiens evolved in an extremely different environment about 150,000 years ago. The humans who had the most offspring surviving into future generations were the humans whose genes we carry today. These genes not only shape basic biological processes like eating and sleeping but influence our behaviours, emotions and cognitive processes in ways which facilitate our survival. The full range of behavioural, psychological and social mechanisms are constrained by the basic facts of human reproduction which are that women are biologically compelled, through a nine months pregnancy and until recently several years of breastfeeding, to invest a great deal more into their offspring than men. There are a number of competing interpretations about how this has shaped who we are (Geary 1998).

In early evolutionary theory, as it has developed from Darwin’s writings, men competed with each other to mate with as many women as possible (Darwin 1888). Those who were successful had more offspring than other males. Thus these trends became embedded in the male genome. Men evolved to pursue short-term sexual relationships while women sought quality of mates and favoured long-term pair bonds. While this is an enormously simplified version of evolutionary theory, it fits in with contemporary ideas about male competitiveness and dominance and can be harnessed to support ‘hegemonic’ masculinity (Fessler 2010). However it leaves much of male behaviour unexplained, as we will go on to see.

The Practical Significance of Male Providing

A glance at consumer spending suggests the provider role is alive and well. Evidence shows that women are responsible for 83% of all consumer purchases—health care spending, choice of bank account, home furnishings—the decision making power belongs to them (Barletta 2003). In 2008 women controlled 60% of all wealth in the United States (Gunelius 2010).

At the wider state level men in the UK men provide over 71% of income tax which funds the benefits system (HMRC 2016). Since the benefits system is in large part designed to protect and support women and children this suggests that the provider role functions indirectly as well.

Research reveals that women have significant influence over the spending of money which men earned. Jan Pahl (1995) showed that despite women earning significantly less than men 42% of women were in overall charge of money compared to 35% of men. She also showed that although men made more money than women 93% of men regarded this income as belonging to the couple or the family with only 7% regarding it as belonging to themselves. Research conducted in household spending today shows that women play the ‘alpha role’ when deciding how money is spent (Wood et al. 2012).

It would appear that men are producing resources for women. Furthermore, throughout history they have taken the least pleasant, most dangerous, hard physical labour, sometimes even taking the place of beasts of burden (Van Creveld 2013). By exploring male social and psychological behaviour, and the role of biology in this, the aim here is to find out why this was done.

The Social Stimulus to the Provider Role

First of all, it appears that having a partner spurs men into productive activity and this is particularly important for men who have menial or poorly paid work. Geoff Dench explains how these are the men who are most likely to need a ‘family role’ to motivate them as their work is not rewarding in itself: “Knowing that there are people whose wellbeing depends on them can dignify and make bearable even the most tedious or unpleasant work”.

He explores the impact of simply having a partner on men at different ages and with different levels of qualification. He finds at all levels of qualification and in all the different age groups having a partner impacts positively on the likelihood of being in employment. Among the least qualified the impact of having a partner on employment, is most significant of all (Dench 2017).

We can understand why this should be so by looking at Ryan and Deci’s study on intrinsic motivation. A great deal of work which needs to be performed is not interesting, creative, or engaging. Therefore external pressure is required to perform the work. However tasks which are boring, repetitive or monotonous will be more effectively performed where the drive to do so is internalised, where the person acts autonomously out of his independent free will. Such motivation is most likely to emerge where doing the work will be valued and recognised by significant others. They explain: ‘Because extrinsically motivated behaviours are not typically interesting, the primary reason people initially perform such actions is because the behaviours are prompted modelled or valued by significant others to whom they feel (or want to feel) attached or related. This suggests that relatedness, the need to feel belongingness and connectedness with others is centrally important to internalisation’ (Ryan and Deci 2000).

The idea that men may be working to strengthen attachments, build relationships and increase belonging to others is conceptually new.

Other research shows that marriage, particularly marriage to the mother or your child, increases the male wage premium suggesting that marriage and reproduction impact further on male motivation (Lerman and Wilcox 2014). A study on a US-based nationally representative sample of men which explored how marriage and fatherhood impacted on the wage premium found that among men without children, married men earned on average 7.3% more than single men, while men in cohabiting relationships earned 5.4% more. Divorced men’s wages did not appear to differ significantly from those of single childless men (Killewald and Gough 2013).

Fatherhood added to this marriage premium. Married fathers of two or more children averaged 4.8% higher wages than married men without children but only if they were married to the child’s mother; this wage premium did not apply to stepfathers, nor to fathers who lived with but were not married to their child’s mother. This combination of marriage and biological fatherhood maximises the wage premium and this occurred regardless of race, ethnicity or level of education. Killewald suggests that the married fathers’ clear commitment to their families as husbands and fathers and their perceived role as providers may have contributed to their higher wages (Killewald 2013).

De Linde Leonard and Stanley conducted a meta-analysis of the data on the marriage premium. After looking at more than 661 estimates of the male marriage premium they settled on a marriage premium of between 9 and 13%—similar to those of Killewald. They too cast doubt on selection as an explanation and argue that marriage may cause men to become more stable and committed workers (de Linde Leonard and Stanley 2015).

Social Costs and Benefits of the Provider Role

There is also ample evidence the women respond positively to male earning and where men struggle in this area it has a negative effect. For example, a Finnish study found that the unemployment and low income of the male in particular increased rates of dissolution for marriages and cohabitation. The employment and income of the male had a particularly positive affect on marriage (Jalovaara 2013). Kanji and Schober (2014) found that married couples in which the mother is the only earner face more than twice the risk of divorce faced by other couples in the early years of a child’s life. Sayer et al. (2011) found that a wife was more likely to initiate divorce if her husband was not employed. Charles and Stephens also found that layoffs precipitate divorce (Charles and Stephens 2004). Henau and Himmelweit (2013) found full-time male employment produces more satisfaction with household income for couples than full-time female employment.

Even Kimmel who sees the provider role as a product of ‘aggrieved entitlement’, repeatedly acknowledges that the women he interviewed wanted men to earn: “I discounted the sentiments of their wives, for whom the traditional patriarchal bargain - he works and supports the family, she stays home and raises the children-was still a desire, if no longer a safe bet” (Kimmel 2017).

What we are seeing is that men go out to earn money, increasing the amount of effort they put into this as the reproductive bonds deepen. And they do this even when the work is mindnumbingly dull. Women appear to have considerable leeway in how this money is spent. Not surprisingly women respond well to this and are more likely to be happy with the household income when the man is earning it. When the man fails in this enterprise he may lose his place in the home.

None of this fits in with the ideas of hegemonic masculinity. Rather I would suggest that the provider role is an altruistic mechanism. In order to understand this we need to look at the deeper architecture of human behaviours and motivations and evolutionary psychology provides a useful lens.

The Origins of Paternal Investment

While basic evolutionary theory fits in with contemporary ideas of male competitiveness and dominance, it does not explain the fact that the vast majority of children are born within monogamous relationships where the father does not just disappear but invests in and remains part of the child’s life. Therefore evolutionary psychology began exploring the development of paternal investment and how this supported reproductive success. Paternal investment is extremely rare in mammals and other primates but strongly present among human beings. It was a mystery why this should be so (Geary 2000).

The most convincing explanations suggest that paternal investment goes back to the dawn of our human existence approximately 150,000 years ago. Paternal investment coincided with the period when the enormous increases in brain size meant the baby’s head began to exceed the capacity limits of the birth canal. This 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 (2015), compared to other primates humans are born 12 months premature. This means that human infants are completely dependent on an adult carer for a much longer period of time than other primates or animals 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 (Lieberman 2014). Human mothers require 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 (Hrdy 1999). 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 pairbonding and the emotional bond between the mother and father of the young children (Geary 2000). There are various suggestions about how this pairbonding occurred.

Pairbonding and the Development of Male Responsiveness

Various social and physical adaptations are believed to have evolved in order to facilitate pairbonding as a way of ensuring paternal investment. These adaptations include hidden ovulation (only males who stay with their mates for an extended period will be able to ensure that they have sex with them when they are fertile), mateguarding (only men who stay with their mates will be able to protect their reproductive resources against other predatory males), constant sexual receptivity (human females are constantly sexually receptive unlike females in many other species who are only receptive during their fertile period)—and so on (Geary 1998).

However the theory I would like to develop here is that male responsiveness and male nurturing have been a crucial evolutionary adaptation. And it is this which has facilitated firstly pairbonding and secondly paternal attachment. Those males who responded to female need were more likely to keep their mate and their children close to them and by doing so they helped to support their reproductive fitness to the degree that a high level of responsiveness to female need became embedded in the male population.

Evidence for this will be drawn from what we know about male sensitivity, differences in male and female emotional expressiveness, the empathy gap, male hormones and an exploration of male responsive behaviours.

Male Sensitivity

Males appear to start out in life as more responsive than little girls. Psychologist Terry Real (1998) finds that “If any differences exist, little boys are, in fact, slightly more sensitive and expressive than little girls. They cry more easily, seem more easily frustrated, appear more upset when a caregiver leaves the room”. Weinberg and Tronick (1997) state that “infant boys are more emotionally reactive than girls. They display more positive as well as negative affect, focus more on their mother and display more….distress and demands for contact than to girls”. Interestingly a study which looked at the differences between six-year-old boy’s and girl’s responses to the sound of a crying baby actually suggested that the boys were more distressed by the sound than the girls were. This was reflected by their heart rate (Fabes et al. 1994).

Gender Differences in Emotional Expression

Despite this higher level of sensitivity at earlier ages it is argued that men are less emotionally literate than women (Levant 1996).

However research exploring sex differences in emotion found unambiguously that there were no significant differences in male and female experience of emotion (Kring and Gordon 1998). Lennon and Eisenberg concluded in a review of the subject that females scored higher than males where participants had conscious control over their responses, for example in self reports. When physiological responses or facial and gestural measures were used as indicators for emotional state little or no sex difference was demonstrated.

The key difference between men and women did not lie in their experience of emotion but rather in the expression of it. Men tended to be internalizers with their display of emotion being in the psychophysiological domain. They were also more likely to mask their feelings. Women were in contrast much more expressive of most emotions than men for example sadness, disgust, fear, happiness and anger. Emotional expressivity is more influenced by cultural context than emotional experience. For example, women would be more likely to express their emotions in the presence of familiar others and inhibit expression in the presence of unfamiliar others. The presence of another person tended to act as an eliciting stimulus (Lennon and Eisenberg 1987).

In order to understand why women are more emotionally expressive than men we can borrow from Scarantino’s Theory of Affective Pragmatics and her distinction between the sender and the individual who is the recipient (Scarantino 2017). This distinction between the sender and the recipient provides a framework onto which we can map the emotionally expressive female who thereby transmits her needs to the ‘receiver’, who acts to deliver them, very often a man.

Studies of emotion have suggested that they help individuals deal with survival issues posed by the environment—for example finding food, avoiding injury and reproducing. They do this by the rapid translation of information gathered through unconscious cognitive processes into the intense feelings we know as emotions. These then produce behaviours which cause either ourselves or others to act—hopefully in ways which serve our interests (Matsumoto 2009).

It is this relationship between the female ‘sender’ and the male ‘recipient’, which is key in translating the emotion into a behaviour which will ensure the survival of the gene line of the participants.1 Emotions are vital because as well as enabling the rapid translation of cognitive information into a form of behaviour which will spur others into action, emotions can also lead to ‘altruistic’ behaviours in others i.e. behaviours which do not appear to have immediate benefits to the actor but which will facilitate the perpetuation of genes. Emotions have a particularly important role in spurring on altruistic behaviours because they are less likely to be mediated by rational thought processes which might calculate costs and benefits to the self.

There is evidence to show that males are more likely to engage in costly altruism—i.e. altruism which will actually incur a disbenefit to themselves, when the beneficiary of the altruistic behaviour is a female. In a study conducted by FeldmanHall et al. (2016) where electric shocks could be reduced at financial cost to the participant it was found that males were significantly more likely to engage in costly altruism i.e. reduce the electric shocks at a financial cost to themselves if the target was a female. Looking from an evolutionary standpoint one can see that if women are the limiting resource to further reproduction taking extra care not to harm women would make evolutionary sense.

Gender Differences in Empathic Responsiveness

Olweus and Endresen (1998) describe empathic concern or empathic distress as being an example of a tendency to experience strong emotional responses. Studies of empathy which demonstrate that males have greater empathy for females than they do for other males supports the idea that female emotional expressiveness serves to provoke an empathic response in the recipient. Studies of empathy thus complement studies of emotional behaviour.

What is particularly interesting about the studies of empathy is the way in which the very particular patterns which emerge are predictable from the standpoint of evolutionary theory. For example results derived from research with questionnaires indicate that empathic responsiveness tends to increase with age, at least up to the mid-elementary school level, and in general, girls seem to be more empathic than boys. (Stuijfzand et al. 2016)

This would make sense. During the time that homo sapiens was undergoing the most significant periods of evolutionary change females would have been highly burdened by childcare. Feeding and carrying a child would have precluded much activity and therefore they would have required others to act on their behalf. Mothers would have acted to support the needs of their children while others—siblings, female relatives and men would have acted to support the needs of mothers.

Bryant (1982) found that during childhood empathic sadness for same-sex others was stronger than for other-sex others but patterns changed in adolescence particularly for males. Whereas girls showed more empathic sadness towards other girls at all ages, boys showed increasing empathic sadness towards the other sex from the ages of 12 to 13 years old. These results were subsequently confirmed by Endresen and Olweaus (2001) for a slightly older adolescent cohort (13–16 years). While girls showed more empathic sadness towards both genders than males regardless of age boys showed decreasing empathy for boys and increasing empathic concern towards girls. This is unexpected as people usually respond more empathically to others who are similar to themselves.

Using evolutionary psychology Olweus and Endresen explain how, this type of attitude or behaviour could have evolved from intermale competition which would have made it necessary for men to avoid signs of vulnerability in a masculine competitive environment. They suggest that a more circumscribed mechanism of ‘ male emotional inexpressiveness in relation to other males’ evolved over very long periods of time and this may explain the decreasing levels of empathic concern in boys (Olweus and Endresen 1998).

This is predictable from the earlier evolutionary understanding that males compete with each other for access to females and it also supports portrayals of hegemonic masculinity. However this is the state of maleness before finding a mate and pairbonding. This is the point at which the hegemonic male is transformed into a responsive and potentially nurturing male. And being able to provide is the first and most essential step for bringing about this transformation.

Male Responsiveness and the Provider Role

If male empathic responsiveness is particularly honed to female need males are likely to be more vulnerable to female emotional expressiveness in ways which could result in altruistic behaviour even if this is at a cost to themselves.

From the perspective of responsive masculinity what underlies male providing is not so much the desire for status, or dominance or achieving competence. What really underlies male providing is the demand from women themselves.

For example, in a sixty year study of mating preferences authors found that in every decade studied women ranked “good financial prospect” as more important in a mate than men did for every decade studied (Buss et al. 2001). In a cross-cultural sample of mating preferences women were more likely than men to value partners who were a “good financial prospect” and showed “good earning capacity” in thirty-six out of thirty-seven countries (Buss 1989). For the same reasons women prefer slightly older men as husbands because this provides the time frame necessary for them to acquire the physical and social skills and capital for them to be good and consistent providers (Ellis 2011).

There were similar findings for cohabiting couples. Research which examined whether cohabiting couples marry was reviewed. In every study which included men male income was a significant predictor of marriage and qualitative studies found that both men and women stressed the importance of men’s economic situation rather than women’s. The couples were generally unwilling to marry until the man had a stable and reliable source of sufficient income regardless of the woman’s financial status (Smock et al. 2005). Similar patterns are found even in Sweden with its highly egalitarian reputation (Bernardt and Goldscheider 2001).

That women attach so much importance to provisioning could be an evolved trait. The importance attached to male providing would have made enormous sense in an evolutionary context where resources were scarce. We can get some sense of the value of men’s role from Frank Marlowe’s (2001) study of the relationship between male provisioning and female fertility among 161 subsistence-level societies. Those societies in which more of the diet was contributed by men have shorter interbirth intervals, lower juvenile mortality and higher female fertility than societies in which men contribute a lower proportion. Through this provision men increased their fertility and the survival of their offspring which resulted in increased fitness for both men and women. In many forager societies children without an investing father have lower survival rates than those with one (Dwyer and Minegal 1993).

However there is also much evidence to suggest huge variability in male provisioning with some societies managing with low levels (Marlowe 2000). Other research has shown the loss of a father does not have such a severe impact on a young child as the loss of a mother (Sear and Mace 2008). And while there are strong correlations between male provisioning and child mortality causality cannot be established (Geary 1998).

This is because what is essential is not so much the provisioning but the indirect consequences of the provider role.

The Provider Role as a Cornerstone to Greater Paternal Involvement

What is being suggested here is that while the provider role is often important for its role in provisioning the family its real importance extends well beyond that. What the provider role does is help keep men within families and foster male attachment and it is through this that the real fathering work begins. We know from pre-industrial societies that provisioning a family is a first step in developing other forms of paternal care.

For example we find that men’s contribution to subsistence is greatest in monogamous societies. These also appear to be the societies in which men are engaged in higher levels of paternal care. His contribution to subsistence decreases the greater the number of wives he has and these patterns appear to be echoed in the provision of direct paternal care. In an analysis of the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample of 186 societies Marlowe (2000) documented that the greater the proportion of men who have multiple wives the less direct paternal care is provided. All this suggests a link between provisioning, the pairbond and paternal care.

Where opportunities for mating are increased provisioning activities appear to reduce. Gray and Anderson (2010) explain how the greater the levels of polygyny the more men might be putting their energy into seeking additional mates rather than investing in current ones. Waynforth (1999) shows how men invest less in their immediate families where their facial attractiveness and therefore their ability to attract mates, is high. While provisioning can act to increase mating opportunities, where mating opportunities are more available provisioning activities will be reduced. By contrast where males feel obliged to provide for their children their opportunities for mating elsewhere are reduced. In this way it may be that paternal provisioning works to keep men within the family.

Generative of Paternal Attachment

The theory proposed here is that paternal attachment which shapes the nature of fatherhood emerges in the same way as maternal attachment—it is in part a response to the experience of having an infant dependent on you. The point of the provider role is that it gives men the experience of having others dependent on them2. This experience of being needed stimulates attachment to those the male must provide for in the same way that infant dependency stimulates attachment in a mother. The experience of being needed ties men into families where they play an active role beyond that of material provisioning.

If the link between experiencing dependent others and the development of attachment towards those others is in some way correct it would help to explain the persistent behavioural differences between mothers and fathers. As an infant has a prior and more direct attachment to the mother (as a result of parturition and breast feeding) paternal attachment is moderated by the mother’s response. The more directly dependent a child is on the father the more nurturant and responsive the father will be. It is because of the accepted and mediating role of the mother that when both parents are around the father always engages less with the child than the mother (Belsky et al. 1984). When mothers assert their position of primary carer the father’s nurturant response is tempered; if the mother abandons the child the father will step up to the plate.

The Biological Impact of Men’s Family Role

The idea underlying evolutionary psychology is that behaviours which further reproduction will become embodied in some form. This can happen for example at a genetic level or through the neuroendocrine system Ellis (2011).

Gray and Anderson (2010) outline some of the ways in which the neuroendocrine system complements some of the psychological changes which take place during men’s transition to fatherhood. They explain how the neuroendocrine system functions to integrate information both within and outside the organism and then uses that information to guide behavioural responses to the environment:

Effectively, the neuroendocrine systems serves as the body’s primary means of engaging sensory, cognitive, emotional and motor mechanisms to enable the kinds of behaviour, such as childcare or mating, that enhances an organism’s survival and reproductive success. (p. 208)

They show the body is primed to physiologically respond to changes in the environment and this can happen in ways which will further reproduction. Various studies have shown how men in long-term relationships or with children have lower average testosterone levels than do single men and that this has been confirmed by various research groups using a range of methods and in both industrialised and non-industrialised societies (Stewart-Williams and Thomas 2013). A study among 624 Filipino men shows that this is not simply that men with lower testosterone levels are more likely to pairbond and have children. Rather they found that men who got married and had children during the course of a five-year study experienced a larger reduction in testosterone than single, childless men (Gettler et al. 2011). The relationships are highly complex and beyond the scope of this paper but it may be that hormonal changes bring about behaviour which helps men adapt to fatherhood.

Research on Couvade, a French word meaning brooding or hatching suggests that men are also primed to be responsive to the pregnancy of their partner. A number of pieces of research have shown that during the first and third trimester of their partner’s pregnancy men experience more pregnancy symptoms for example weight gain, restlessness, insomnia, appetite changes and so forth than men whose partners are not pregnant.

Men also appear to be primed to respond to infants. Touch has a powerful impact on cortisol levels and fathers could recognise their infants simply by touch suggesting that doing so had left a powerful learning imprint on their mind enabling them to recognise their infant without actually being able to see them. Gray and Anderson also discuss how facial resemblance matters more to men than women with greater resemblance leading to more anticipated paternal investment. MRI scanning demonstrated the neural substrates of this suggesting that what some might interpret as a form of cultural conditioning actually has a physiological root. Men listening to the cries from their own infants experienced increased activation in several brain areas. One of the areas activated was the hypothalamus which can affect the release of hormones throughout the body (Gray and Anderson 2010).

Some of these responses, for example the testosterone lowering effects of pairbonding, or couvade do not occur in all cultural contexts suggesting that the hormonal and psychological response is influenced by the cultural context. If some of these responses are more desirable than others (for example it is known that lower testosterone levels prime a man for childcare) the question then becomes what are the social and cultural formations which are most conducive to these socially useful responses in men.

This raises the possibility that the provider role could in some way prime men for an appropriate familial response. One hint comes from the animal kingdom. Research among birds has shown that intermale competition and courtship may lead to increases in testosterone levels while the formation of long terms bonds and the raising of chicks causes the testosterone levels to drop. Injecting birds with artificial testosterone was found to lead to reductions in provisioning behaviours but increases in the courtship of extra-pair mates (Ketterson and Nolan 1999). This points to a link between provisioning behaviours and testosterone levels. And while we can see that testosterone impacts on provisioning behaviours it also seems possible that these behaviours could be impacting on testosterone levels, helping to bring them down.

This is extremely tentative but if similar relationships between provisioning and testosterone levels were found among humans this could have some very interesting implications. It would provide evidence that the provider role by reducing testosterone levels could potentially be reducing some behaviours such as competitiveness and status seeking, which are not valued in the male by contemporary society.

How the Provider Role Facilitates Other Paternal Behaviour

While the provider role may be valuable in itself its greatest value lies in the way in which it provides the cornerstone for other forms of male nurturant response. This is not only because male provisioning helps the father to secure a place in his child’s home. I submit that the act of providing elicits a more nurturing and caring response from men.

This is a challenge to those theories which argue that working in order to provide for the family necessarily gets in the way of more direct forms of fathering. While it seems obvious that a man who is out of the house all day earning a living is less likely to be engaged in more direct forms of fatherhood, as long as the work is not too consuming and is rewarding enough to enable him to spend time at home, the overall effect of the provider role is to shore up rather than challenge a father’s more directly nurturing roles.

Hints that this might be the case are emerging. Firstly, although research suggested no significant differences in infant caregiving between traditional and non-traditional fathers interestingly it turned out that it was the traditional fathers who were more likely to play with their children (Lamb et al. 1982). A more recent study suggested that it was not the amount the father worked which determined how much a father played with his child but the mother ’s work schedules which determined paternal involvement (Norman and Elliot 2015). This reminds us that fathers appear to be responsive to what the mother wants them to do.

A study based on Swedish panel survey data examined, among other things how traditional or egalitarian gender roles influenced attitudes towards parenting and the transition towards parenting. Men with traditional (i.e. breadwinner) views about men’s and women’s roles actually perceived higher costs of parenting than men with egalitarian roles and this was not related to economic concerns. Rather it was related to the concern that children would limit their personal freedom and reduce time with friends (Bernardt and Goldscheider 2006). This suggests that those who expect to provide for their children are expecting to also invest heavily in their children in other ways. It was also the traditional fathers who had children sooner suggesting that the providing role is still furthering reproductive fitness today.

Traditional fathers have been found to be more likely than non-traditional fathers to be engaged with their children regardless of whether they worked more or whether their partner worked more. Hofferth and Goldsheider (2010) found that even when neither of them worked the traditional fathers would be more actively involved with their children. By contrast when fathers did not hold traditional gender roles they were less involved with their children than was predicted based on their own and their partner’s work commitments. The authors point out that as today’s young fathers are more likely to fall on the non-traditional gender role end of the continuum, they may be less able to reach an appropriate compromise regarding work and family when faced with unemployment than were earlier generations of young men with traditional gender role attitudes.

Male employment has been found to contribute to father involvement even where he is not living with the mother. Mincy et al. (2005) found that pre-birth employment tends to increase all forms of father involvement: non-residential visitation, non-marital cohabitation, and marriage.

The generative potential of the provider role takes shape when we look at Cazenave’s study of black fathers who were letter carriers in New Orleans. Although the study was published in 1979 it is notable that over half the men had employed wives rendering their situation comparable to the current day. Choosing fathers from a reasonably paid non-professional job meant that potentially confounding variables were not allowed to get in the way. Cazenave chose a job which enabled men to support their families without providing a too salient competing source of identity while at the same time ensuring that they had time available to spend with the family at home.

For the men in his sample the provider role was also the most salient role identity to being a father and was likely to be seen as the most important thing these men did for their children. Cazenave examined the possibility that being able to provide for your family made other modalities of fathering possible. The fathers felt that their own greater ability to provide for their families had fed directly into playing with their babies more, helping with homework more and a greater emphasis on companionship and education than had been possible for their own fathers (Cazenave 1979).

Dench too found in his research on fathering in minority cultures in the UK that men who spent more time doing domestic work tended to be men who had fairly traditional ideas about the sexual division of labour. They put their own careers first, and saw this as the economic mainstay and foundation for the family. However furnishing the basic family income gave these men the confidence to take on domestic work as well. The men who had accepted the equal importance of women’s work often appeared to have opted out of both financial contributions and domestic work (Dench 2011).

Although I have tried to demonstrate that the provider role has leverage on other forms of nurturing this is only part of the story. A father who is so poorly paid that he spends the vast majority of his waking life working is likely to feel alienated from the means of reproduction, his family. The fruits of his labour are so paltry and his absence from the family so palpable that any link between parenting and providing becomes too tenuous for the generativity of the provider role to evolve. It is also likely to be the case that work stress which a father experiences can get in the way of effective direct nurturing. The breadwinning role can have negative consequences for men’s mental health when they perceive themselves to have failed in it while fathers can be excluded from fathering simply because they failed to provide (Oliffe et al. 2011; Bryan 2013).

However in these examples it is not the provider role itself which has failed in its potential to generate nurturing behaviour. Problems have arisen because of difficulties in performing the provider role.

Nonetheless the provider role can get in the way of paternal direct nurturing. Working will get in the way of the direct care of children no matter who performs it and negotiating the balance between these two activities causes tensions between parents up and down the country day and night. But the provider role is not only about bringing home the bread, or the bacon, but about something more.

A recognition of the importance of the provider role emerges in Farrell and Gray’s book (2018) where they suggest that if being the primary parent is viewed by men as employment this will make for a happier life. However I would suggest that employment derives its value from provisioning and simply viewing childcare as employment will not have a beneficial effect. Rather if the primary parent is a male, a better outcome would be achieved by finding some form of provisioning activity such as home improvement, excellent shopping or cooking skills or even the provision of status or social networks.


The provider or breadwinner role has been seen as belonging to the constellation of masculine characteristics which are broadly conceptualised as ‘hegemonic’. What I have tried to demonstrate here is that the provider role may in fact be an expression of a responsive masculinity and provisioning behaviour actually serves to develop male nurturing instincts further.

If we explore evolutionary psychology the idea of ‘hegemonic’ masculinity roughly corresponds with the adolescent, pre-reproductive phase of development when more competitive status seeking practices are ascendant perhaps partly because of higher testosterone levels. During this phase responsive masculinity lies dormant but is activated in response to male female interaction (what happens with homosexual relations would be an extremely interesting area of exploration and may shed light on heterosexual relations too). Once a pairbond forms male responsiveness causes males to participate more in provisioning activity as this appears to be highly valued by females, even in contemporary industrial societies. Men who provision are more likely to reproduce due to female demand for male providers. Fatherhood itself stimulates further nurturing behaviour and processes of attachment. The tendencies to nurturing, attachment and responsiveness are strongly supported by a whole range of neuroendocrinological processes.

The aim of the paper is to show that even where the nutritional or financial value of what is provided is not essential, the provider role is because it provides the foundation on which the real and most valuable and essential work of fatherhood is done. These other paternal roles have been extensively elaborated elsewhere. This suggests a link between provisioning, the pairbond and paternal care. The provider role by giving men a place in the family may act as a cornerstone for the full range of paternal engagement.

The hope of the article is to stimulate more research into the relationship between paternal provisioning, attachment and nurturing before the provider role is dismantled further. Research should also be conducted into the range of forms which provisioning can take in contemporary society and developing models of provisioning which do not depend on employment.


  1. 1.

    This theory has been developed in detail by William Collins in his online article on emotion and the pairbond:

  2. 2.

    This idea is further developed in Dench (2011), Transforming Men, Transaction.


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Independent ResearcherLondonUK

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