Are women really on track to become “the richer sex” and replace men as primary breadwinners in American families, as recent headlines suggest? Not quite. The notion that women are outpacing men on the job has become a popular media narrative over the past few years. But the data on which it’s based don’t hold up.
Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that, in fact, we’re in the middle of a “mancovery”—while women are slipping backwards. Between June 2009 and June 2011, women lost close to 300,000 jobs, while men gained more than 800,000. “We've never seen a recovery like this,” the National Women's Law Center's Joan Entmacher told NPR, “where two years into the recovery women are doing so much worse than men and are actually losing ground.”
Still, the popular perception is that women are soaring. Much is made of the “fact” that more than 40 percent of American women are their family’s breadwinner. In her recent Time magazine cover piece (adapted from her new book, The Richer Sex), for example, journalist Liza Mundy cites 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics data saying that one in four women outearn their spouses. This claim was picked up by scores of media outlets.
But look a bit more closely at the numbers, and the picture doesn’t seem so rosy for women. Which women are advancing? And which men are backsliding? The answers are important if you are going to talk about who’s getting “rich.”
In fact, the only segment of society in which a substantial percent of wives significantly outearn their husbands is low-income workers, according to two respected scholars who looked at large national data sets. Senior economist Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress says that in 2010, among couples whose earnings are in the bottom 20 percent, 70 percent of women outearn their husbands.
And Anne Winkler of the University of Missouri, in her detailed 2005 analysis, found that the wealthier the couple, the less likely it is that the wife will outearn her husband.
As family income goes up, fewer and fewer women outearn their husbands, Winkler told The Daily Beast. When you look at women who really are the breadwinners—who earn 60 percent of family income—the figure drops to about 10 percent. So when you talk about women who are making appreciably more than their husbands, it’s only one woman in ten. And it’s primarily among couples earning the lowest salaries, averaging some $20,000 a year per household. Clearly, using the term “rich” doesn’t describe what’s really happening for many women.
In addition, the 40 percent figure widely cited today drops dramatically when more sophisticated analyses are used. Only when you define a woman who outearns her working husband by as little as a dollar a day as the “breadwinner”–and you include single mothers who are sole providers—can you get to that 40 percent figure.
Certainly, women have made significant gains in the past four decades, and there are indeed educated middle-class women who are the primary breadwinners, but they are far from taking over American homes.
The real story behind headlines touting the rise of women is that men, especially at the lower end of the wage scale, were doing poorly at the beginning of the recession. Even then, women weren’t doing great, but men were losing their jobs at a faster clip and their wages were declining. Now, women are sliding backward. But will the “mancovery” story have legs, or will it lose out to the “richer sex” narrative?
The latter seems likely, in part because women are graduating from college and grad schools at record rates, and there’s a strong belief that advanced degrees will turn into fat paychecks. But that doesn’t seem to be happening for women.
Women start behind when they enter the workforce and never catch up. This pattern holds true even with graduates from our most elite universities. Female Harvard alumni earn 30 percent less than their male counterparts 10 to 16 years after graduation.
And women’s representation hasn’t grown significantly in corporate boardrooms, executive suites or among companies’ top earners, reports Catalyst. CEO Ilene H. Lang said in 2011, “This is our fifth report where the annual change in female leadership remained flat. If this trend line represented a patient’s pulse—she’d be dead.”
In a recent speech, Harvard law professor Nancy Gertner said about women, “You’re supposed to say: ‘Things are fabulous.’ But they are not. Advancement has stalled.” Half of all new lawyers are women, she said, but only 16 percent of equity partners in law firms are female. And of lawyers who leave the profession, most are women—and most do it because of family and social concerns.
Under a veneer of success and progress, women are in fact at risk of sliding backward. A 2010 study by psychologist Jennifer Spoor and her colleagues at Queensland University in Australia found that men feel threatened by women’s gains.
As we wrote in a Daily Beast column last year, based on the anxiety men report over women’s successes, exaggerated news coverage of women “taking over the world” could result in a real pushback from men.
In contrast, when women focus on these gains, they report low levels of threat—as well as a diminished need to bond with other women. Spoor calls this the “rose-colored-glasses syndrome.” Too many women think all the battles have been fought, discrimination is a thing of the past and the future will bring ever-greater progress for them. This difference may explain the current low levels of feminist activism.
The “richer sex” narrative may blind women to reality, making it harder for them to build on the very real gains they’ve made in the past and truly move forward.