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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Women as the breadwinners: Turning the traditional model of gender roles in marriage on its head

When Nicole Winchester has to work late from home, her husband Gary slips a hot meal between her and her laptop. On a typical week, he’ll do the shopping, the dishes and most of the cleaning. The laundry is also his domain, mainly because he likes it done just so.
Ms. Winchester hasn’t the time for (or admittedly, the interest in) the domestic sphere. She’s too busy as the breadwinner in their Toronto household, having brought home significantly more bacon as a television producer during their seven year marriage thus far.
He’s got the more flexible, albeit lower paying, job and therefore has more time for these duties, she said. He’s also relieved she has the education and work experience to be the high earner in their house — something that jarred Ms. Winchester at first.
“I was a little surprised because you always expect men to have that sort of issue, or at least you’re taught to expect that,” the 37-year-old said. “But Gary’s never had an issue with me making more money. He’s been like ‘If you make more money than me, that’s awesome — then we have more.’”
In the last few decades, women have come to gradually outpace men in education, with women making up 60% of university graduates in Canada, and in earnings growth, with the average total income for women in Canada increasing at nearly twice the pace of men’s. And as this outpacing across North America only seems to accelerate, working women are poised to eclipse men as the primary household breadwinners — a cultural shift that is changing the dynamics between husband and wife, turning the traditional model of gender roles in marriage on its head and even shaping the way younger generations view an institution at risk.
What happens in a new order that’s still in transition, when the hard won equality among partners is surpassed as mom rushes off to work while dad takes the kids to the playground, wonders Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy, author of the forthcoming book The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, due out in March.
“We want to marry somebody with the same degree set we have, we want equality and we want parity,” Ms. Mundy said in an interview this week. “It is sometimes, for some women, unnerving when they find themselves pulling ahead of their partner.”
Provided The cover of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, by Liza Mundy.
She cites 2009 United States labour bureau data which shows the percentage of working wives who outearn their husbands has increased from 23.7% in 1987 to 37.7% in 2009 and that has likely increased since then because of the economic downturn, researchers say. In Canada, the proportion of wives who were primary household earners rose from 11% to 19% between 1967 and 1982 and continued to rise until about one in four, or 29% of households, were dual earner in 2003 —in many households, women were the big earners, according to the most recent figures. “The continued rise suggests that women in the role of primary breadwinner is not likely a temporary phenomenon,” Statistics Canada analysts Deborah Sussman and Stephanie Bonnell wrote in 2006.
Based on this incredible rise between 1987 and 2009, Ms. Mundy projects that by 2030, a majority of working wives and single mothers supporting their households will outearn the traditional breadwinning male. While men are still the top earners as a whole, today’s baby-boom executives will be retired in 20 years, she said, paving a clear path for the next generation of educated women.
Many of the women she interviewed for her book said they had harmonious homes — that of course times have changed and the household is run by pragmatics: Whose career is taking off, who has the highest earning potential, who actually likes cooking and cleaning and making the beds? They’d figure it out, and the house would run smoothly from there.
But some tensions were impossible to ignore: Sure, men had their insecurities, but the ones women expressed were most interesting, Ms. Mundy said.
“It can be disconcerting, even if you’re proud of it,” she said. “Some women don’t want to get trapped as the primary breadwinner. They feel they’re going to lose flexibility and choice in their lives — maybe if they want to stay home with the kids it’s going to be less feasible? They are getting their head around the idea that they’re providing.”
One woman told Ms. Mundy she had lost her feelings for her husband after she went to work and he became the caregiver at home, saying she “respected him less as a man.”
“I interviewed this one really progressive feminist who admitted ‘Sometimes, I know it’s wrong, but I just had these spasms of thinking ‘It’s my money, not our money,’” Ms. Mundy said.
Ms. Winchester admits to feeling that way too sometimes. She and her husband have been paying down debt, but when she wants to buy something for herself, she can feel a fleeting wave of resentment that she cannot.
“I know it [seems like a] childish thing, but at the same time I’m thinking ‘I make the money, why can’t I buy an iPad?’ That was my thing — if I make this money, why can’t I go out and buy a computer if I want to?”