The wave of optimism about women’s economic fortunes has crested yet again with the release of Liza Mundy’s latest book, The Richer Sex. Her thesis is that given certain trends, any day now women will outearn men, become the majority of breadwinners and therefore upend social and cultural norms relating to marriage, sex and families. (Upfront caveat: I have only read, and will only be discussing, the part of the book that sets up the trend, and not the parts that examine what the social fallout will look like. I’ll address those in a follow up.) The exact timing of what she calls The Big Flip, where women overtake men, is unclear, but she feels we are just about there, if not already experiencing it.
This is the heart of her thesis: “Almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now outearn their husbands, a percentage that has risen steeply in this country and many others.” She adds that “[w]ives are breadwinners or co-earners in about two-thirds of American marriages” and that “[a]lmost 7 percent of wives—nearly 4 million women, up from 1.7 percent in 1967—[are] sole breadwinners.” These are impressive statistics to be sure, but as some have pointed out, the math doesn’t add up to a claim that women are already the richer sex. After all, to flip her numbers around, 60 percent of men are still outearning their wives, a third of married women are still contributing less to their families than their husbands and 93 percent of wives are not sole breadwinners. But Mundy predicts that the time when the balance will tilt toward women is “just around the corner.” “We are entering an era where women, not men, will become the top earners in households,” she says. “We are entering the era in which roles will flip.”
How are we going to get there? One of the biggest trends that has Mundy—and many others—excited is that women are getting more degrees than their male counterparts. She points out, “By the year 2050, demographers forecast, there will be 140 college-educated women in the United States for every 100 college-educated men.” Women are getting higher degrees faster than men, it’s true—they hold 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees—and a college education is correlated with higher earnings overall. But why might women be scrambling to get a college education? Mundy says it herself: “Women have become so accustomed to discrimination they naturally assume they will need more education to be paid an equivalent wage,” and these women would be absolutely correct. As I wrote earlier, women experience a pay gap compared to men at every level of post–high school education. Overall, college-educated men make $800 more per month than college-educated women, but the gap expands the more education they each take on. Women are getting degrees not to outshine men but to try to keep pace—and they’re failing. That trend, of achieving more degrees just to fall further behind, does not bode well.
Neither does occupational segregation. Another way Mundy thinks we’ll get to The Big Flip is by women taking jobs in growing industries while men stay stuck in declining ones like manufacturing and construction. (Never mind that manufacturing is seeing a rebound lately—one that is excluding women workers completely.) She notes that “of the 10 jobs with the largest projected job growth—nurses, home health aides, customer service reps, food preparation and serving workers, home health aides, retail sales, office clerks, accountants and auditors, nursing aides, and postsecondary teachers—nine are majority female.” Yet six of the nine that women dominate are low-pay, low-benefit jobs with little stability and paltry labor protection. And women still face pay penalties even in industries they dominate. Over half of retail salespeople in New York make under $10 an hour, while women still make less than men. The median pay for a home health aide is under $10 an hour, and they’re excluded from federal labor laws. Not to mention that, while Mundy says our new economy will no longer run on hard labor, a lot of these jobs—particularly home health aide work—require backbreaking exertion and long hours. I would argue that women aren’t “taking the good jobs where they are being created,” as Mundy puts it. These aren’t good jobs yet. We have to improve them if this is where economic growth will take place.
Not to mention that women may hold “51 percent of managerial and professional jobs,” as Mundy says, yet they are still excluded from the top ranks that pay the most. Women are unable to move up the pipeline: less than 20 percent of executive officers and board members in Fortune 500 companies are women, and they make up a pathetic 3.6 percent of CEOs. And as for making top pay, they only account for 7.5 percent of top earners at those companies.
The trends that sparked Mundy’s book are in fact historic and exciting. I would agree with her that today’s women are “poised to become the most financially powerful generation of women in history.” (In a later post, I’ll evaluate what she thinks will be the social impacts of this phenomenon.) But to take that the extra step and say that, any day now, women will be making more than men ignores the structural problems that still stand in our way. And the danger of declaring a premature victory is not that we might become overly giddy. It’s that we risk assuming that if we sit back and watch these trends play out, women will inevitably reach equality with —or even overtake—men. Not to mention that fighting for women’s equality has rarely meant trying to surpass and suppress men. The goal is not for a complete flip, but to reach equilibrium. And we’re not there yet.