The Richer Sex

This week’s Time magazine cover story is on “The Richer Sex,” with author Liza Mundy arguing that women are poised to take over as the breadwinners in a majority of America’s families.

Of course, when you hear that, it’s easy to revert to stereotype, and picture a “reverse traditional” family, where mom goes off with her briefcase, and Dad is wearing an apron (why, oh why, do articles on primary parent fathers always mention aprons? Does any primary parent mother actually wear aprons?) The picture is a bit more complicated. One reason women are breadwinners is that many families don’t feature a marriage between the children’s biological mother and father. A majority of children who are born to women under age 30 are born to single mothers. Women are breadwinning in these cases because otherwise there’s no bread. When you add in the divorce rate, you again get a lot of women who are supporting their families not necessarily because of women’s economic and educational gains. They’re supporting them because they have to.

That said, there is a definite shift within the more traditional family as well. According to Mundy, in dual-earner couples, women contributed an average of 44% of income in 2008, up from 39% in 1997. Women outearn men in 38% of marriages, up from about 24% 25 years ago. Much of this is the fruit of educational gains made in decades past. Women have been the majority of college students for a while, and now earn the majority of masters degrees and PhDs. As these shifts have taken place, childcare and housework have become more evenly split within households (Mundy debunks the belief that men do less housework as their wives earn more in order to re-establish their masculinity — just a sociological pet theory, it seems). 

So what does this all mean? I argued in my “The Princess Problem” column that little girls need to grow up thinking that they could be responsible for supporting their whole families at some point. This is why I always hedge when people ask me, in interviews, “so, the message of your book is that people don’t need a lot of money to be happy, right?” Well… I don’t think money is a bad thing. I think little boys still grow up thinking about money in a way little girls don’t, for the very unfair reason that they assume they will be judged in life on how much they will bring in. I see this in the negotiations over part-time work I’ve been privy to. New mom negotiates a 70% schedule for 70% pay, looking to be fair and to play by the rules. But what, pray tell, is the denominator? Employer does not stick to a 40 hour denominator, and so our part-timer works close to full time, but earns less. Someone more focused on money would look at that situation, stick with full-time work and pay, but push back and disappear on occasion, wagering that it’s not that easy to fire someone. Let someone go in a mass layoff? Sure. But you could be working your tail off and still lose out in that situation. 

Anyway, what I find most fascinating is that a woman’s income is certainly no longer a detriment in the marriage market, and is starting to be a big plus. Christine Whelan pointed this out in her book Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women back in 2006, noting that there was no longer any marriage penalty for women with college or advanced degrees. And now, according to Mundy, while women in general are marrying less, high-income women are marrying more. Just like rich men have always done well in the marriage market. These high-income women have children, and these children grow up in families where it’s not so strange to have a preschool class dad, where mom and dad are both focused on kids and careers and, as Mundy puts it, there aren’t “outdated notions of which sex is better fitted to what.” 

Laura’s note: I’ve had such a great response from my last request, that I thought I’d ask again. Do you ever blog about books? Would you like to blog about All the Money in the World? If so, I can email you a PDF right away. Just shoot me a note (lvanderkam at yahoo dot com).

photo courtesy flickr user kevin dooley



24 Responses to The Richer Sex


  1. ARC says:

    As you know, this is a topic near and dear to my heart and I will argue to the death for the *right* part-time work arrangement, because sometimes that’s the right answer for a parent (male or female).

    I think the only way this works is if the person working part time sticks to the hours they say they’re going to work. It’s always possible to work more.

    I also think this works better if you have days where you “go dark” – ie, right now I’m in the office Tues/Thurs all day and Friday mornings. The rest of the time, I scan email (on my phone) and respond ONLY to the truly urgent. Everything else can wait. I don’t attend meetings during those times unless it’s urgent as well.

    I could never “get away” with this arrangement if I were supposed to be working full time. I do put in the 25 hours I get paid for, and have 2.5 extra days to do other things in my life :)

    I’m considering ramping up to 30 hours (75% time) as I am going to be the primary breadwinner in our house shortly. But the same principles still remain – I’d probably do 3 days in the office and still have 2 to myself.

    In practice, even a 75% schedule allows me to draw firm boundaries I can’t if I’m a full time employee at the tech co where I work. Having worked both full time+ here and part time,there is a definite difference in expectations, and that alone is worth the pay cut :)

    • Laura says:

      @ARC- I am glad to hear that works for you, and also that your job will enable you to support your family working 75% time. Sounds like a good gig! These things do have to be spelled out very well in terms of boundaries. I think the trouble is that companies that don’t set boundaries with full timers often find them hard to set with part-timers too.

  2. Cloud says:

    I was surprised when I realized that I am considered the primary breadwinner. Not surprised that I make more money than my husband- I always have, and neither of us minds that. I’m also a few years older and have a PhD to his MS. I was surprised because the idea of a “primary breadwinner” doesn’t fit into how I view our lives. If push came to shove, either one of us could support the family on our salary alone. We’d have to make some big changes to our lifestyle, but either one of us COULD be the primary breadwinner- it seems weird to fixate on which of us actually is right now. I think the theoretical framework in which people are analyzing the lives of people like us could use some modernizing.
    I’m with you on the apron thing, too. I think it is unnecessarily sensationalizing the sociological trend. It is like we can’t shake our collective cultural memory out of a world that only existed in old sitcoms.

    • ARC says:

      This is a good point. With our family it goes back and forth as well as we have relatively equal earning power when we both work full time.

      I really subscribe to a work philosophy that we should enjoy what we’re doing, take time off when we need to (if financially possible) and change jobs as needed. I just can’t fit into the work for a company for 40 years then retire mold ;)

    • Laura says:

      @Cloud- we do have very outdated notions of these things. In the majority of two-parent families, both contribute some amount of income. The change in proportion is interesting (on average women contributing 44%). And yeah, the apron thing is just bizarre. I wrote a USA Today column about primary parent dads a few years ago, noting that most had some involvement in the workforce (freelancing, consulting, part-time work, or even just a less intense full-time gig than their wives). The headline on the web version talked about “stay at home” dads until I asked them to change it. It’s like we still have this mindset that there can only be one person with a job per family.

    • Twin Mom says:

      I love this viewpoint! My husband and I earned equally till kids. He now earns far more and, because he’s had the flexibility to advance, probably will until he retires or is laid off. I seek to be employed/employable- in a pinch, we could live on what I could earn, even with medical bills in the picture. I also expect to work longer, because US tax structure makes it advantageous to earn $100k for 45 years vs. $200k for 23 years. Hopefully I can afford to let him retire early.

      • Laura says:

        @Twin Mom- I, too, aim to earn enough (or have the capacity to earn enough if I’m not currently optimizing) to give my husband options. I’d love to hear how you guys made the decision, given that you were both earning similar amounts, that you’d focus more on the kids and he on his career. Though perhaps (I’m guessing from some other things you’ve posted here) that it might have been the current circumstances — a change in your job which made tipped you guys in that direction.

        • Twin Mom says:

          I was laid off while pregnant with twins. The available job, which had numerous competitors, required flying to Italy, which was impossible. I spent 1 month on my side in the hospital before the twins were born. Given that the employer was cutting 40% off our division during those months, my chances of remaining employed didn’t seem good and we didn’t know how disabled the babies would be. (They turned out to be OK.)

  3. Christine says:

    I was self-supporting when I married, half of a two-income couple for some time, sole breadwinner for the two of us for some time more, and have now been self-supporting again for some two decades.

    I am happier, more relaxed and on a far more secure financial footing now than I ever was during my marriage. Whatever the challenges this brave new world brings to women who are trying to make a family life work, I must say that I am thankful every day that it gives me the ability to create a life I love for myself.

    • Laura says:

      @Christine- I like your optimism. Some days I feel a little harried but then I remind myself there is really no other time I could be living in and have all the choices I do.

  4. I just want to say that I do wear an apron. Sometimes. Mostly when I’m kneading bread dough.

    Hee.

    • Laura says:

      @Kristen- I am slow. That took me a while to get the pun. Nice work :)

  5. My fiance and I actually had a similar conversation, his take (as a man who was raised in a “traditional male-breadwinner, female-stay-at-home-mom” household) was that the pressure on the man is IMMENSE. The reason we are committed to a dual-income, dual-career household is because I don’t think it’s fair or healthy to subject either of us to that pressure of “there goes my job, and so does the food for my entire family.” I don’t want to support the family alone, and he does not either. Knock on wood…

    • Laura says:

      @WHB- I think breadwinner pressure isn’t talked about as much as it should be. There are men who’ve spent their whole lives slogging away in jobs they don’t like, dealing with an awful commute, because they are their families’ sole means of support. There are some inefficiencies involved in spreading the burdens and joys of working and homemaking around, but also some freedom and safety gained too. I read a book called Equally Shared Parenting (by Marc & Amy Vachon) a few years ago that articulates that philosophy pretty well.

      • ARC says:

        I was really intrigued by the Equally Shared Parenting article in the NYT (maybe it was on Motherlode, I can’t remember).

        I’d love for us to get to something like that, timewise. Philosophy-wise, we’re already there – my husband can do all the house/kid things I can, sometimes better :) . He is definitely the preferred parent for BabyT, too.

    • We saw this when my BIL was laid off and he and his wife and son moved into my IL’s basement. He became incredibly depressed and his wife would say things that just made him feel awful, even just, “I’m sure you’ll find something soon.” (He didn’t find anything soon… but did get re-employed when his sector picked up again.)

      DH remarked after we visited how happy he was that he didn’t have that kind of pressure. I said I didn’t think DH would get depressed if unemployed because he’d keep himself busy doing productive things, even if not for pay and we can live on one salary without having to move in with anybody. (I’d miss the fancy cheeses, but maybe for special occasions.)

      It’s great having that flexibility. Of course, one has to have fixed expenses less than one income to have that kind of flexibility (which is rare, according to Elizabeth Warren).

      • Laura says:

        @N&M- I think more people could keep their fixed expenses low than do. Housing is the big temptation. It’s become normal to spend in the vicinity of a third of your income on housing even if you earn a lot of money. I guess the assumption is that income will rise over time and you don’t want to have to move because you’ve bought too little house, but income can go down, too. As for fancy cheeses, sounds like you have the right idea. Spend less on the house, splurge on the cheese.

      • ARC says:

        If you have Trader Joe’s, even fancy cheese isn’t much of a splurge!! :)

        • Laura says:

          @ARC- I had to stop going to Trader Joe’s. I find the chocolate covered caramels too good. I cannot resist them. When I reach my goal weight I can return, but until then, nope.

          • ARC says:

            Oh yeah, lots of temptations there, but we do nearly all our shopping there so it would take a lot for me to quit :) My saving grace is that the candy and cookies are not in their own aisle – they seem to be randomly placed around the store so the same thing isn’t in the same place twice :)

        • Yes, rub it in about not having Trader Joe’s…

          At least our house was cheap.

  6. Pze says:

    “There are men who’ve spent their whole lives slogging away in jobs they don’t like”
    True. But the same is also true of working women.

    • Laura says:

      @Pze- and may be more true in the future if women take on a breadwinner role without a societal understanding that both parties can scale up and down. And, of course, the number of single-parent families will definitely feature women working in certain jobs because they feel they have to.

  7. oilandgarlic says:

    Late to the discussion but I have to add that all my life, my idea of equality was to work but I never considered my potential to be breadwinner. I think that this is common though. I read several finance blogs by 20-something women and they seem comfortable with earning but not earning MORE or supporting the family. I’m not sure I’m happy with that type of arrangement but I do see that there are pros when the burden isn’t on one shoulder, female OR male.