The richer sex

In the United States, almost 40 percent of working women already out-earn their husbands.

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.


  • The entire story should be caveated on the basis that is applies to women in wealthy countries only.

    "colorectal surgery and veterinary medicine, for instance" Seriously? What percentage of women in the workforce would be employed in such highly specialised jobs? Areas where women have traditionally worked, such as nursing and teaching are still lower paid that other sectors of the economy.

    I studied Commerce in the early nineties where more than 50% of graduates were women and I can pretty much guarantee that most of us earn less than our male counterparts. Whether it is caused by going part time after children or due to wage negotiation, I am not sure but it does exist.

    The future is certainly better for women that the past, but this article is quite unrealistic.

    Date and time
    March 29, 2012, 9:25AM
    • Interesting - I wonder if it will unfold in the same way in Australia as it does in the US though?

      Date and time
      March 29, 2012, 9:40AM
      • Im very concerned about where this is heading and the fact that women want to earn more and be better than the male. Im a female and I until recently earnt double what my partner was. He is now on just a bit less (we dont work in different industries and mine does get more money in general, i work in Finance) I think the key thing here is to be treated and paid the same as men where appropriate. Not to be better than men or to be able to say we women are the bread women. It sounds to me like the Femenists are going too far. Soon men will be fighting against sex discrimination and we will have been as bad as the men were. I refuse to be underpaid and when i go for a job interview i have done my research, know what im at least worth and i demand that. The problem is women dont like to be forceful and doubt themselves.

        Date and time
        March 29, 2012, 10:18AM
        • Feminists gone too far? do you even know what you're talking about? do yourself a favour and do some reading. Feminism isn't a competition, or about being better than men or being agressive, it's about not being opressed because of what's between your legs because at the end of the day, it doesn't matter.

          Date and time
          March 29, 2012, 11:06AM
        • The issue with equal pay for equal work was worked out in the 80s. The main gripe now is that women dominated industries are paid far, far less than male dominated industries. A (university trained) nurse earns 30$ an hour before tax, an (tafe trained) electrician earns 60$ an hour before tax. This discrepancy needs to be addressed.

          Date and time
          March 29, 2012, 11:32AM
      • "For women to break through glass ceiling and get to the top, they're going to need supportive partners"

        There is now and not to long ago a female PM, female Gov. Gen., two female state premiers, female CEO's (Gail Kelly most notable). The glass ceiling argument is quickly losing its validity.

        Obviously not a woman
        Date and time
        March 29, 2012, 10:23AM
        • Are you kidding?

          You were able to name 5 sucessful women and you think that means there's no glass ceiling? Those women are not the norm. It still looks a long way from equal, fair or representative to me. Comments like yours do nothing but reinforce an idea that is absolutely false.

          A quick survey of the ASX 200 companies shows;

          4% of CEOs are female, 10% of board directors are female, 8% of executive management positions are women (with only 4% of line roles being women, suggesting these figures will decrease), 16% are partners of which only 4% are manging partners.

          These figures are decreases fromn 5 years ago and seconf lowest in the OECD (ahead of Japan only).

          Data from the EOWA’s recent Women in Senior Leadership Survey.

          A look around the government options is better but still not great, with 31% of board members being women, 21% of local government councilors being women, 30% of federal upper house MPs being women, and extensive criticism existing about the fact that women are not being given safe seats but instead the risky marginal ones.

          Date and time
          March 29, 2012, 11:43AM
        • Women account for slightly more than 50% of the population, yet the majority of those in positions of power are men. When 50% of powerful positions are occupied by women, be it in government, boardrooms etc., then we can stop talking about the glass ceiling.

          Date and time
          March 29, 2012, 12:02PM
        • Women make up more than 50% of the population, so only a 50% or greater presence on boards would mean the glass ceiling has been broken?

          ~24% of Australians are born in another country, therefore 24% of boards should be made up of these people.

          ~4% of Australians have German heritage, therefore ~4% of boards should be made up of German/Australians

          1% if Australians are illiterate, so 1% of boards should have illiterates .

          You cannot simply ignore the impact of child birth on women's careers and therefore earnings, being away from an industry for 2 years can be a lifetime that puts you behind the 8 ball. YES business should be more accommodating to getting good women back into the workforce, but business only cares about money.

          It would be nice if women could go back into the workforce at a higher level after having children, just as it would be good for men to be able to look after their kids (at the expense of their career) and not be thought of as a loser/slacker/bludger but this is not the world we live in.

          Everyone needs to think its someone holding them back (and its not their own fault), I personally blame Lebanese Tasmania's.

          El Diablo Negro
          Date and time
          March 29, 2012, 1:12PM
      • you cannot get past the biological fact that only women can get pregnant and have a baby. men cannot.

        Date and time
        March 29, 2012, 11:00AM

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