Women’s Rise to Economic Dominance

40% of working wives earn more than their husbands, according to U.S. government data

By Diane Merlino

One of the most far-reaching economic and cultural shifts of our time is well under way as a growing number of women take on the role of primary family breadwinner.  

Liza Mundy, an award-winning reporter for The Washington Post who has covered work/family issues for much of her career, uses research data and primary interviews to document the trend in her latest book, The Richer Sex. How the new majority of female breadwinners is transforming sex, love, and family (Simon & Schuster, 2012).
A primary driver of women’s ascending economic power in the U.S. is the new generation of females who are better educated and in many cases more ambitions than their male peers. 

“Women are now out-achieving men in terms of college completion,” Mundy told Travel Weekly PLUS. “There are more women than men getting undergraduate degrees as well as masters and doctorates. I attended college in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and women were not quite at parity. They certainly weren’t at parity on my [Princeton University] campus.” 

At the same time, evidence that more and more women out-earn men is mounting. A majority of female graduates command higher first-job salaries than their male peers, and according to U.S. government data 40% of all working wives in the U.S. now earn more than their husbands.   

“It seemed as though we had reached a tipping-point,” Mundy said. “It was becoming a common enough phenomenon that it was worth examining the causes and the consequences.”  

The is the first excerpt from a dialogue between Mundy and Travel Weekly PLUS Editor in Chief Diane Merlino, edited for length and clarity.   

Merlino: Where did the research you did for the book lead you?
The main finding is that more and more women are emerging as the breadwinner in their households. In the cases of married women, the federal government keeps track of how many wives out-earn their husbands. Among working wives the percentage has steadily increased over the past 25 years, and close to 40% of working wives now out-earn their husbands.

At the same time, we have growth in the number of women who are raising households alone. The percentage of children being born to single moms is now 40%. My book looks at both married women who are out-earning their partners and single women who are breadwinners by default and in some cases single moms.

In a nutshell that’s the phenomenon I’m describing in the book.

Merlino: These are pretty significant trends.
I was also looking at the causes behind women’s economic ascendance, and that would include women’s increasing educational dominance. It would also include changes in the workforce where to a certain extent we are moving away from a manufacturing-based, industrial economy that traditionally favored men. So causes include changes in the economy and changes in women’s educational level and academic preparation for the workforce. 

Merlino: Would you say those are the two primary causes or the underlying magma that's shifting things above ground?
Yeah. I’m trying to explore the impact this has on people’s personal lives, and then it all becomes interrelated. For example, what I was seeing more and more among younger women is that if they’re dating somebody and if the young woman’s academic credentials are better, or if her career seems to be more promising, then in an increasing number of cases young men are saying to their girlfriends or wives,  “I’ll move for your career. I’ll facilitate your career.” 

As we all know, personal lives impact and reinforce what’s going on in the workplace. So it’s not just about education, it’s not just about the economy. It’s about the decisions that individual couples make that can fuel the trend.

Merlino: What you’re outlining here is basically a new economic order, with many more women on top as the primary breadwinners. Were you looking for that trend when you started out doing the research?
No, I really didn't know that that's what I was looking at. There were books in the 1980s and ’90s on women as breadwinners, but at that point it was still really quite unusual. Those books, which are very interesting, didn’t necessarily describe a large swath of women.

Until I started doing the reporting and looking at those numbers that the federal government generates, I didn’t realize how much more mainstream and common the situation is becoming. And it wasn’t until I started researching the history of marriage that I came to realize how very new it is for women, particularly in marriage, to have any kind of economic role or rights.

Merlino: Tell us a little about that.
I knew enough about the history of marriage to know that women had been disenfranchised. But up until the late 19th century, women could not own property in marriage, and they did not have the right to their own wages. And society in general felt that this was crucial for marriage to exist at all, and to exist on terms that were considered desirable — for the man to be the household leader and for the woman to be subservient. Newspapers and other cultural sources at the time spoke of that as being important.

Up until fairly recently, the extent that marriage depended on women’s economic subservience or disenfranchisement was something that I have to confess I had not been fully aware of.

Merlino: Have you found there’s a concurrent increase in the number of women in senior executive or decision-making positions within companies as part of their increase in earning power?
Well, we’re still waiting. There are some lagging indicators here. The halls of Congress are one, and CEO offices are another. There are other people who are better experts on this than I am. I think the last Fortune 500 list had more female executives on it than ever before, but it was still a pretty small number. As in Congress, we are seeing progress but not mass representation at this point.

Merlino: Is the increase in women's economic power separate from women assuming top positions in the corporate world?
No, I don’t think it is. It’s true that corporate America is still one of the last holdouts. Certain fields have been much more conducive to women joining them, like medicine. Women are getting medical degrees pretty much at parity with men, and they’re finding that the workday is conducive to having a family while also maintaining your career, particularly in fields like internal medicine and OB/GYN.

Even though the legal field is not perfect for women in terms of making partner, it’s probably more conducive thanRicherSex corporate America. It’s still hardest for women with MBAs to rise to the top and achieve dominance. Certainly, it’s happening. After my book came out, I interviewed and talked to a lot of women CEOs. They’re clearly out there and rising up in these corporations, but they’re definitely still meeting with barriers and roadblocks.

Merlino: If the trend toward women out-earning men continues unabated will we reach a point where women out-earn men as a rule rather than the exception?
That’s the question: Will the gender pay gap flip? I'm not a master grapher, but the percentage of working wives out-earning their husbands has been going up steadily since the late 1980s, when the government started tracking it. You can plot that rise. If the trend were to continue at its same pace, somewhere around 2036 or 2037 it would rise over 50%. Again, this is working wives.

Now, the trend could arrest. It could stop. It could plateau. But given the fact that we’ve got this generation of women now who are better educated than their male peers, and that studies show that they’re more ambitious than their male peers, it might not stop.

Merlino: What sort of forces could arrest or slow the trend toward the increase in female breadwinners?
If the economy changes and the manufacturing jobs that have traditionally been available to men and that pretty much went away in the recession come back booming, that could arrest it. Or if for some reason we don't move into this knowledge economy the way we seem to be.

The other thing that could arrest it is if women say, “You know what? We actually don’t want this. We really do want to be the secondary earner and have the freedom to go in and out of the workforce and make choices about whether to stay home with our kids.”

When I was doing talks after my book came out, a young woman introducing me held my book up and said,  “You know, this is actually kind of scary.” So, if women find it too daunting to be the primary earner in their households or if they face too much stigma — if women resist it — that could stop it.

NEXT WEEK: Liza Mundy on how the growing economic dominance of women is transforming business.  

Liza Mundy’s headshot by Sam Kittner.


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