Journalist Liza Mundy sees a time, in the very near future, when women will earn more than men and the economic shift will transform our mating, marriage, and motherhood patterns. In The Richer Sex, Mundy points out that 4 of 10 wives currently are primary breadwinners, bringing in as much or more than their spouses. Women already receive more undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees than men. Outnumbering men in most classrooms, women will be better suited to compete in the knowledge economy, fast overtaking the outmoded and masculine manufacturing model. We already occupy more managerial and professional positions. All of this portends what she calls “the flip”, reversing men’s superior earning power, within a generation. At that point, more women will be supporting families financially than men, and a cascade of change will ripple through our homes, neighborhoods, and society.
Mundy already finds many husbands in the kitchen, making elaborate meals with more macho, state of the art cooking utensils. (Stand back, honey, I’m firing up the blow torch to finish off the crème brulée!) More dads are staying home, too, doing extra hours of housework and child care, and supporting their working wives. As their incomes rise, women find they exercise more influence on financial decisions in the home. However, the redistribution of power within the couple presents issues for both partners.
If the wife’s focus is on work, what does that say about her identity as a mother? If the husband handles playdates, doctor visits, and permission slips, is he less masculine? If he and the children develop an easy intimacy from long stretches together, how does she step back into that tight family circle? Does an unmarried woman say she’s a teacher to up her dating prospects when she’s really a university chair with a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering? Will unmarried, childless women who have the means to become mothers do so in ways that don’t include committing to a man? As 40% of babies born every year go home with single mothers, “illegitimacy” has lost its stigma. As the next generation forms its own expectations, Mundy clams both boys and girls will prepare themselves equally to support spouses and children, and expect the same of future mates.
I am not persuaded a decade or two will erase the persistent wage gap between men and women. We’ve been flooding the workforce now for half a century, and in spite of making up half the labor force, the wage gap remains. Women are not equally distributed throughout all industries, but tend to cluster in the lower paid “pink collar ghetto”. We trail men badly in political power, a seat in the boardroom and occupying the corner office. Add motherhood on top of all that, and the disproportionate amount of family care we do, and it still looks like a long, hard slog to me.
Stephanie Coontz, a well-known marriage and family historian, seems to agree. In her Washington Post review, she points out that working class jobs remain as heavily segregated by gender as they were in the 1950’s. Women’s income will also be held back by their tendency to adjust their work to caregiving needs, while men generally stay the career course in spite of fatherhood or an ill or elderly parent. The intriguingly named Bryce Covert, writing in The Nation, charges Mundy overstates her case with its happy ending of equality at work and at home. Women may have an edge in professional jobs, but they are not taking over in circles where decisions are made and corporate policy established. They make a pittance compared to male high-earners. In fields poised to grow, like health care, food preparation, retail, and customer service, pay is low and benefits scarce. Even if women fill these jobs as they are created, their power and influence will not be enhanced.
Admittedly, working women and employed mothers are changing society. In households where the wife is the hunter-gatherer and the husband keeps house, spouses will confront complicated issues of identity, worth, and cultural acceptance. But most women are mothers, and most of them will still labor – in all senses of the word – on an uneven playing field with no paid family leave, unequal economic opportunity, and in a culture which prizes monetary rewards over family carework.
Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington