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.