Having It All, Doing It All

More women are earning more than their spouses, and doing more housework/childcare at the same time
by Gordon Campbell

To the alarm of social conservatives in the United States, a Pew Centre survey has recently found that American women are now the primary breadwinners in 40% of households that include children under 18 years of age – a figure up from only 11% in 1960. The 1950s stereotype of Dad coming home from the office or factory, while Mum stayed home and looked after the kids is becoming a distant memory – along with the relatively high paying jobs for men in management or manufacturing, on which that nuclear family stereotype was based.

A few weeks ago, the Pew Centre data triggered a fierce debate on screen between Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and two seasoned conservative commentators in Moneyline’s Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson of the Redstate.com website.

According to the two guys, the entire fabric of the socio-biological order – in which males are dominant and women are by nature, submissive – was in jeopardy from the Pew findings. Kelly wasn’t buying it. She shredded Dobbs and Erickson with research about female-centred households, and also drew on positive findings about the children of racial intermarriage and same-sex marriage – which, as you might imagine, are not usually promoted with such intensity on Fox News. Incidentally, it was Kelly who gave Republican strategist Karl Rove a reality check on election night last year when Rove tried to spin an argument that Mitt Romney could still win Ohio, and thus the presidency : “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better,” Kelly memorably asked Rove, “ or is this real?”

For New Zealand viewers, the Dobbs/Erickson clip was pretty fascinating for several reasons. One, it was an unscripted eleven minute long debate in prime time television, about a social issue. That simply doesn’t happen here. Secondly, Kelly argued her corner with a ferocity that would have seen a Mary Wilson or a Kim Hill pilloried as left wing harpies if they tried to do the same. Thirdly. the two US conservatives were obviously far, far smarter than their New Zealand counterparts – note in the clip how they pre-emptively included the likely objections to their rancid opinions, even while they continued to dog whistle to their support base. Lastly, it was grimly fascinating to see Dobbs (in particular) and Erickson trying to patronise Kelly as a feisty hellcat of the “Gee, but you’re awful pretty when you’re mad’ variety. She wasn’t buying that line ( “Excuse me ?”) either.

The gist of the Pew Centre findings story is not merely that fulltime jobs – with good wages – for male workers are disappearing. The social reality that mothers are the main income earners in four out of ten US households happens to be on a collision course with the other reality : that women continue to do most of the housework, and almost all of the child raising, especially of babies. This conflict is likely to intensify, as more women become better educated. One of the fascinating nuggets of evidence in the Pew Centre survey was that as women earned more than their husbands, there was often a corresponding increase in the housework/homecare done by such women, as if in compensation. As the New York Times linked to above pointed out :

When the wife brings in more money, couples often revert to more stereotypical sex roles; in such cases, wives typically take on a larger share of household work and child care. “Our analysis of the time use data suggests that gender identity considerations may lead a woman who seems threatening to her husband because she earns more than he does to engage in a larger share of home production activities, particularly household chores,” the authors write.

This may only be a temporary aberration, the NYT suggested optimistically, as society adjusts and the reality of women earning more than their husbands is taken to be acceptable, both socially and psychologically.

As Forbes magazine – another conservative media outlet – has been quick to point out, these increasing demands of work and home should serve as a wake-up call for a management culture that still measures worker commitment and contribution by who leaves the office last, at night. Women can’t do those hours, not if they have children to care for, and homes and husbands to maintain.

Interestingly, Forbes doesn’t expect that management will wise up any time soon to the female talent they will lose if they continue to treat long hours at the office – and not actual productivity – as a key sign of a worker’s value. The gist of the Forbes analysis is here:

As one would expect, the rise of female breadwinners hasn’t come without some turmoil. Based on what researchers in another study found, it can be hard on both members of a couple when the woman earns more than the man. That’s not surprising, given traditional societal attitudes about this. The couples with female breadwinners reported less happiness with their marriages and higher divorce rates, according to separate academic research that the [NYT] cited.

Nonetheless, it does look like there are plenty of couples finding ways to navigate changing roles–realizing that they’re not in an earning contest, and it doesn’t really matter in the end who makes more money. They’re a team, and what’s important is working together to meet the needs of their families. Otherwise, it seems like the divorce rate would be skyrocketing.

But to repeat : there’s a crunch point in all of this :

At the same time, if the trend toward female breadwinners accelerates, we’re likely to see an exodus of the highest performing women in this group from traditional jobs into their own businesses. Many workplace cultures still operate on the assumption that whoever stays at the office the latest is the most loyal and valuable employee….This 1950s style model works well for someone who has a full-time, stay-at-home partner to hold down the fort at home, but that doesn’t apply to many women who work, whether they are earning a middle-class or moderate income. It doesn’t really take into account men who want to see their families after work, either.

In Japan, the situation is even more unsustainable. The cult of the workaholic journeyman office worker who puts in extraordinarily long hours at the office – and even more hours of socialising with co-workers and middle management before coming home – is utterly at odds with one of the main planks of Abe-nomics, the economic policy programme of the new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe has made higher rates of female participation in the paid work one of the three main planks of his Japanese recovery plan. Yet so far, the incentives he is touting ( such as better childcare facilities) fall far short of the structural change required to transform the male-centred corporate culture in Japan.

In fact, the Pew Centre figure of “ four of ten households” is deceptive. It artificially forces two different realities into one numerical straitjacket.

One element of the “four in ten” situation is largely a middle class phenomenon. These are the households – and they comprise 37 % of all households where women earn more than their husbands – where the women in question are disproportionately white and college educated, and their mean total income was almost $US80,000 in 2011, well above the $57,100 median for all US families, nationwide. In families where the main household income is earned by single mothers however – and they comprise the other 63% of the picture – the median income is only $23,000 or nearly four times less than the other group, and less than half the national average. Not surprisingly, this group is generally younger, less well educated, and likely to disproportionately black or Hispanic.

In a later issue of this publication, Werewolf will examnine what data there is on the New Zealand situation, and the related social attitudes. Supposefly, these trends will cause a rise in enterpreneurialism, at least azmong the ipper m iddle class. This entails women founding or running their own businesses, either on their own, or in unision with their relatively well-heeled spouses. Theoretcially at least, this is one way for women to evade the male-centric rules of corporate culture,and juggle their homecare/childcare roles accordingly. Yet for obvious reasons, relatively few women and families can afford to go down that route – given the start-up costs, and given the high risk of failure that is commonly associated with new business initiatives. Having a wealthy spouse is a useful back-up plan.

“There’s a tendency to regard this as a trend one where women are all going home and starting businesses of their own,” says Candice Harris, Associate Professor of Management in the Faculty of Business and Law at AUT University in Auckland. “My sense is that while that certainly does happen for some women, opportunities for work in general for women have increased across the board over the last few decades. While starting a new venture always incurs some degree of risk, many of the women in our case studies on women entrepreneurs had a relatively ‘soft landing’ should their business fail, as they did not take on much debt to launch their enterprise. We also found that as their businesses became more successful, they also became more traditional in their set up, in that childcare and business responsibilities were kept more separate – as you would expect is the case when comparing having a new born versus a school aged child, or children.”