In the United States, almost 40 percent of working women already out-earn their husbands.
Imagine a future in which women aren’t just paid the same amount as men, but out earn them. In which more children grow up in households financially supported by mothers than by fathers. In which women are free to pursue high intensity corporate careers and men to perfect the art of the gourmet home dinner – or vice versa – each in accordance with their interests and abilities.
Sound like a sci-fi feminist utopia? It may be closer than you think, according to Liza Mundy, a Washington Post journalist and author of new book The Richer Sex: How The New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family. In fact, let’s take that one step further: like most things about the future, it’s already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.
Sound like a sci-fi feminist utopia? It may be closer than you think.
We’ve all heard the stats about women on board members and CEOs (10.1 percent and three percent respectively, as measured in 2010). On International Women’s Day this year, Sydney group Lady Mafia Productions released a video showing that over a lifetime, women with children will earn only half of what their male equivalents will over the course of their careers. In Mundy’s home country the United States, women earn only 80 cents for every dollar men do. In Australia, the figure is slightly higher, at 82 cents.
But focus too much on the bad news, and you risk overlooking the good. A 2010 study by a US market research firm found that in 147 of 150 cities, childless women under 30 earn more than men do. Women increasingly dominate higher education, comprising over 55 percent of Australian university students – and as we will see below, this matters. In the United States, almost 40 percent of working women already out-earn their husbands... and that statistic includes not just women who are employed full-time, but those who work part-time or who are self-employed as well (in Australia, the stats are less impressive, coming in at 13 percent in the last census).
“If the numbers continue to rise at the same rate they have been, then by 2030 a majority of working wives will out-earn their husbands,” explains Liza Mundy, who calls this transition “the flip”.
Female breadwinning is not the same thing as equal pay, warn University of Sydney Business School researchers Marian Baird and Karen Reeves. It is possible for individual women – even large numbers of women – to earn more than individual men, while women on average still earn less than men do. The US statistics prove this. Nor is female breadwinning revolutionary in and of itself – just ask the legions of working class women, migrant women, lesbians and single mothers who have been bearing that load for decades.
But Mundy’s figures do suggest that the relationship between a person’s gender and the money they take home is more complex - and multidimensional – than it once was.
The first factor shaking things up goes back to those higher education stats: women are attending university in higher numbers than men, and a university education means higher earning potential. “Girls are told now by their families, ‘You have to be able to support yourself. You have to go to school, and we will help you do that,’” explains Mundy. “On the other hand, boys are often still told, ‘You’re a provider, you need to get out and work.’ It’s an ironic mixed message that boys still feel like they need to provide so start working sooner, and limit their future earnings.” Women are also being strategic about the fields they enter into: colorectal surgery and veterinary medicine, for instance, both of which pay well but have regular hours.
The other factor, says Mundy, is the “hollowing out” of Western economies, as the well paid industrial jobs once dominated by men disappear. In the US, this trend has been exacerbated by the Global Economic Crisis, but it applies elsewhere across the developed world. “Jobs are moving either to the low end of the economic spectrum or the high end,” explains Mundy, and such an economy increasingly favours women, who are not only better educated, but disproportionately work in “growth” areas such as health care, communications and IT. Where in 1980 the most common professional occupation for women was teaching, now it is business.
Like any broad change, the New Girl Order will come with its challenges. Those “scare stories” you read about single mothers (no one will marry you!), intra-spousal resentment (your husband will leave you!) and the social and economic marginalisation of working class men (okay, that one’s a real problem that needs to be addressed)? Are all part of the same package that will, if Mundy’s thesis proves correct, soon make women the “richer sex”.
But ultimately, Mundy’s message is a positive one: not just for women, and not just for your hip pocket, either. “There is no question that it’s good for women to be economically empowered in their relationships,” she says. “It’s also good for men to have more options in life, to know that it’s okay to be a secondary earner, or to stay at home. We will see many couples begin to trade back and forth [between being the primary earner].”
And as for equal pay? “For women to break through glass ceiling and get to the top, they’re going to need supportive partners. If bosses get the message that women’s careers and earnings are valued as much as men’s, then that too will equalise the gender pay gap and get more women to the very top.”
It’s time to put your shades on, ladies, because the future is looking bright.