Liza Mundy's book, <i>The Richer Sex - How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family</i>.

Liza Mundy's book, The Richer Sex - How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family.

Imagine this scenario. You are the family breadwinner. You work hard for a decent wage and your identity is largely defined by your career. You come home after a long day at the office to the sight of your bloke in an apron, bursting with news about his shift at the school canteen and the latest hits on his daddy blog. The smell of a baked dinner wafts through the house and the kids – clean, fed and in their pyjamas – rush up to hand you your slippers.

OK I'm being facetious. That's not quite the scenario Liza Mundy sketches out in her book The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family. But she does argue that a "big flip" in gender roles is just around the corner.

Liza Mundy is a journalist who likes to map social trends. While a young woman at an Ivy League university in the '70s, she felt like part of a distinct minority; but about seven years ago she noticed that American women were now the majority on campus. She began to investigate how this was translating into the world of work and discovered men's wages were stagnating and women's rising. She found in most American cities, young women in their twenties (most, it must be said, without children) were out-earning their brothers and boyfriends.

“[Michelle] was the breadwinner and the primary carer when [Barack Obama] started in politics.”

“[Michelle] was the breadwinner and the primary carer when [Barack Obama] started in politics.” Photo: Photo via whitehouse.gov

Then came the recession, which eroded traditional male jobs in manufacturing and construction. As men lost jobs, women went back to work or increased their hours, accelerating the trend. Now, Mundy says, 38 per cent of employed wives earn more than their husbands. She predicts that percentage will rise.

There are Australian parallels. Here, 57 per cent of university students are women. In Sydney, one in six women out-earn their male partner, a trend more pronounced in some suburbs. But while most of us know a female breadwinner, the Bureau of Statistics states that the proportion of Australian women earning more than their male partner is only 15 per cent.

Mundy will be looking closely at our experience following her flight to Australia on Wednesday. She's heading to Sunday's "All About Women" Festival at the Opera House.

On the phone from the US, she admits that no trend is certain or unstoppable. But while she's optimistic that "the big flip" won't flop, she admits there's a backlash. Mundy argues that for the trend to continue, there'll need to be new negotiations in relationships and very different marriages. Women who earn well will need to "marry down" if they want a man willing to put his career second. Men will need to embrace fatherhood in different ways and celebrate a shift in identity.

It's happening. Mundy says new studies show many younger men are onboard, and working-class men are also doing more of the housework.

Yet high-earning men "are talking the talk but not doing the work". While high-earning men want change (witnessed by the fact that they are reporting more work and family conflict than women), their workplaces are less forgiving of men who want to leave for home early, for example.

Hence the recent article in The New York Magazine about feminist housewives opting out. It describes how wealthy, high-powered corporate men work so hard, their wives give up juggling their own career.

Mundy says the answer to this scenario lies with men, who need to join the conversation. She talks to many who quit high-powered jobs to support their wive's career and be with their children. "They find it unnerving, but it will push women further to the top."

There's no doubt money matters. It's power. It's independence. Mundy quotes Virginia Woolf, who argued that financial self-sufficiency was more important than the vote. She also cites young women who strive so hard because they saw their mothers' standard of living suffer after divorce.

Yet for all Mundy's positivity, it's clear we have some way to go. And, I would argue, some big hurdles to jump. Hurdles such as sexism, the unmet need for high-quality childcare and for work flexibility, and that old chestnut, equal pay.

I would argue power is also important. And money doesn't always equal power. Mundy admits that women are rising faster in professions such as medicine, rather than in politics and business, where they are still the minority.

She also says a potential inequality is stemming from the western woman's "boom times". The Richer Sex contains a chapter pointing to a future trade in women across borders. Mundy says men in Korea and Japan are already looking for wives from cultures where women will be more subservient and submissive. Does some women's economic power come at the price of the submission of others?

I don't want to be another person in the media asking "What do women want?", but I do want to ask: "Do we want this?"

As men strive for a more balanced life, do we want to become wage slaves, married to a job that defines us, weighed down with the responsibility of earning? Mundy admits many women she met did complain of getting boxed-in when they became the primary earners.

Mundy offers another path. “The ideal situation is where we both work but we sling shot each other through life and take turns (to be the major worker).”

When I predict that the teenage years may be the perfect time to lose myself in paid work, she doesn't laugh. "No it's a precious time; I'm about to lose mine altogether!"

Mundy wrote a biography of Michelle Obama and cites her marriage as an example of a slingshot marriage. “She was the breadwinner and the primary carer when he started in politics. When his career took off, she adjusted all of her life."

Admittedly, Obama got the power and the glory but there's talk that when his presidential term is over, Michelle may step up. "I've always said no because she hates politics but it's possible," Mundy admits.

Then there's Hilary Clinton; also a great example of the slingshot marriage. Mundy and I both hope it's not too late for Hilary to run for president.

All in all we may not be the richer sex any time soon. Yet, if women can earn enough to make a slingshot work in a partnership, it sounds far more fun and fairer than breadwinner or cake-maker. But, in my house, everyone can get their own slippers.

 

Liza Mundi will be speaking at the All About Women Festival at The Sydney Opera House on 7 April. Get your tickets here.