Pew study: Two different tales of women earners

Woman with briefcase climbing stairs Image copyright Thinkstock

A new study shows that in 40% of US homes with children, the primary earners are women.

A Pew survey found that of the women supporting their families, 37% were married women who earned more than their husbands, while 63% were single mothers.

Compare that to the 1960s, when just 11% of families were supported primarily by mothers.

You'd think as someone who has written a book called Womenomics about the power of women in the workforce, I'd be thrilled by these numbers. And at first glance I was.

Struggle and success

The problem is the Pew survey shows two very different stories. One is the happy reality of middle-class, college-educated women finally being paid what they deserve.

Image copyright Library of Congress
Image caption Women entered the workforce in droves starting around the time of World War II

The other is the more depressing tale of undereducated, poorer single mothers who are still struggling.

I'm not quite sure why Pew has put them together in the same report, because they are really different stories.

There is no breaking news about the unhappy position of so many single mothers in the US, there are just a lot more of them. They are by necessity the only bread winners in their families. They are more often working class, with no college education, and they are more often African American or Hispanic.

I am in awe of them every day.

There is not much in life that is harder than being a poor single mother, struggling, often with multiple badly paid jobs, to earn enough to feed and clothe your kids. (Of course, for every mother there is, somewhere, a dad, and I just wish we could be more effective in getting them fully engaged in rearing the children they fathered.)

The other story in this Pew survey concerns married women who are educated and have white collar jobs. Here there is confirmation of a new and significant trend.

'Important social shift'

I first heard news that American wives are earning more than their husbands last year from the Families and Work Institute. The Institute estimated that a quarter of all American women were bringing home more than their spouses. They think that percentage will rise to 50% within five years.

This is an important social shift with serious implications for relations between husbands and wives, and parents and children. I can say from experience that when a woman starts earning more than her husband, something shifts in the balance at home.

It can often creep up. Unspoken but suddenly, the wife's career commitments are given priority.

Dads then have no choice but to make more lunch boxes, organise more play dates and fix the baby-sitting arrangements in order to free Mum up to take that business trip or make that meeting. This can be a source of great relief as financial pressures ease, but it can also be a source of tension as traditional roles are shaken up.

We are less than 75 years past the single biggest change in women entering the workforce - the emergence of Rosie the Riveter and the war that drew women in the millions into the workplace for the first time.

I'm prepared to stick my neck out now and say wives earning more than their husbands may well come to be seen as the second most significant shift that American professional women have ever seen. It's subtle, but as every working mother will tell you it is also significant.

Some of this income shift to women is caused by the positive trend of women finally starting to earn their due and some by the more negative trend of men losing their jobs at a faster rate than women in what became known after 2008 as the He-cession.

Conflicted country

Women seem to be embracing their new role as bread winners. More of us say we want to work full time and fewer of us say we'd prefer not to work at all. There is little indication this trend will reverse course. Women are increasingly better educated than men. We earn more degrees, more post-graduate degrees, even more PhDs.

As we shift from an economy that increasingly values brains over brawn, the war for talent will keep drawing highly skilled women into the workforce and will keep paying them more.

Those are the numbers, but what about the attitudes? The Pew survey suggests a country still conflicted about all these breadwinning mothers.

When I was in college I assumed that when I had children I'd live in a world where there were just as many stay-at-home dads in the park as there were stay-at-home mums. How naive I was, and this Pew poll shows why.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Women now make up almost half of the workforce

According to these numbers, half of us still think children are better off if the mother stays at home, but only 8% feel the same about the father. Three-quarters say it is harder for a marriage to succeed when the mother works, even though it allows a family to live more comfortably.

For us breadwinning professional mothers, those are rather depressing statistics. I'd also say they are absurd.

Working mothers aren't going back to their traditional roles, the vast majority simply can't afford to. Women work because we enjoy it, we have educations to offer and because we simply have to.

The sheer numbers dictate that these attitudes - to poor single mothers and educated professional mothers - will have no choice but to catch up with the times.

I'm confident they will.