Pew study: Two different tales of women earners

Woman with briefcase climbing stairs

A new study shows that in 40% of US homes with children, the primary earners are women.

A Pew survey found that of the women supporting their families, 37% were married women who earned more than their husbands, while 63% were single mothers.

Compare that to the 1960s, when just 11% of families were supported primarily by mothers.

You'd think as someone who has written a book called Womenomics about the power of women in the workforce, I'd be thrilled by these numbers. And at first glance I was.

Struggle and success

The problem is the Pew survey shows two very different stories. One is the happy reality of middle-class, college-educated women finally being paid what they deserve.

Two women and one man take a break while working in a factory. Women entered the workforce in droves starting around the time of World War II

The other is the more depressing tale of undereducated, poorer single mothers who are still struggling.

I'm not quite sure why Pew has put them together in the same report, because they are really different stories.

There is no breaking news about the unhappy position of so many single mothers in the US, there are just a lot more of them. They are by necessity the only bread winners in their families. They are more often working class, with no college education, and they are more often African American or Hispanic.

I am in awe of them every day.

There is not much in life that is harder than being a poor single mother, struggling, often with multiple badly paid jobs, to earn enough to feed and clothe your kids. (Of course, for every mother there is, somewhere, a dad, and I just wish we could be more effective in getting them fully engaged in rearing the children they fathered.)

The other story in this Pew survey concerns married women who are educated and have white collar jobs. Here there is confirmation of a new and significant trend.

'Important social shift'

I first heard news that American wives are earning more than their husbands last year from the Families and Work Institute. The Institute estimated that a quarter of all American women were bringing home more than their spouses. They think that percentage will rise to 50% within five years.

More from the report.

Based on census data, the Pew report looked at earning trends for US women.

  • Married women with a higher income than their husbands tended to be older, white and college educated.
  • Single mothers who support their family on average tended to be younger, more likely to be black or Hispanic, and less likely to have attended an institution of higher education.
  • For married women who are the main earners in the family, the median total family income was almost $80,000 (£53,000) compared to the median income of $23,000 for the families of single mothers. The national median for all families with children is $57,100.
  • About 25% of all US households are headed by a single mother.
  • Women make up nearly half the national workforce.
  • The employment rate among married women rose from 37% in 1968 to 65% in 2011.

This is an important social shift with serious implications for relations between husbands and wives, and parents and children. I can say from experience that when a woman starts earning more than her husband, something shifts in the balance at home.

It can often creep up. Unspoken but suddenly, the wife's career commitments are given priority.

Dads then have no choice but to make more lunch boxes, organise more play dates and fix the baby-sitting arrangements in order to free Mum up to take that business trip or make that meeting. This can be a source of great relief as financial pressures ease, but it can also be a source of tension as traditional roles are shaken up.

We are less than 75 years past the single biggest change in women entering the workforce - the emergence of Rosie the Riveter and the war that drew women in the millions into the workplace for the first time.

I'm prepared to stick my neck out now and say wives earning more than their husbands may well come to be seen as the second most significant shift that American professional women have ever seen. It's subtle, but as every working mother will tell you it is also significant.

Some of this income shift to women is caused by the positive trend of women finally starting to earn their due and some by the more negative trend of men losing their jobs at a faster rate than women in what became known after 2008 as the He-cession.

Conflicted country

Women seem to be embracing their new role as bread winners. More of us say we want to work full time and fewer of us say we'd prefer not to work at all. There is little indication this trend will reverse course. Women are increasingly better educated than men. We earn more degrees, more post-graduate degrees, even more PhDs.

As we shift from an economy that increasingly values brains over brawn, the war for talent will keep drawing highly skilled women into the workforce and will keep paying them more.

Those are the numbers, but what about the attitudes? The Pew survey suggests a country still conflicted about all these breadwinning mothers.

When I was in college I assumed that when I had children I'd live in a world where there were just as many stay-at-home dads in the park as there were stay-at-home mums. How naive I was, and this Pew poll shows why.

Woman works in a kiosk at Walgreens Pharmacy Women now make up almost half of the workforce

According to these numbers, half of us still think children are better off if the mother stays at home, but only 8% feel the same about the father. Three-quarters say it is harder for a marriage to succeed when the mother works, even though it allows a family to live more comfortably.

For us breadwinning professional mothers, those are rather depressing statistics. I'd also say they are absurd.

Working mothers aren't going back to their traditional roles, the vast majority simply can't afford to. Women work because we enjoy it, we have educations to offer and because we simply have to.

The sheer numbers dictate that these attitudes - to poor single mothers and educated professional mothers - will have no choice but to catch up with the times.

I'm confident they will.

Katty Kay Article written by Katty Kay Katty Kay Presenter, BBC World News

Powerful words but was Netanyahu right to make speech?

Prime Minister Netanyahu's fiery address to Congress was an "affront to the president," according to Martin Indyk the former US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    (Of course, for every mother there is, somewhere, a dad, and I just wish we could be more effective in getting them fully engaged in rearing the children they fathered.)

    A single mom could have performed abortion. Her boy-friend never has such an option. Why must the woman be the only one with the power to decide?

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    71. David

    "True. But Obama was the one who, as the first President of African-American background, was supposed to turn things around."

    That's true of all presidents, not just the current one. It's a bit much to expect any of them to fix a problem that's persisted for 148 years.

    Besides, D.C. is run by the legislature, not the executive. If any group is responsible, it's our congressmen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I work with low income families. What I see is if a Husband and Wife are both working at the same minimum wage job, the Husband gets paid $1.00 more per hour than the wife. Same jobs, unequal pay. So Women with education and high earning jobs might be making advances but those in the low income category are making No advances.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    #69.Andy Post

    "Obama's America? It's been that way since the Civil War."

    True. But Obama was the one who, as the first President of African-American background, was supposed to turn things around. Under his leadership, the ghettos have got worse. Reality has trumped the rhetoric.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    I am a stay at home dad. UB is wrong about me anyway, I don't drink beer until 5pm, don't surf the wrong site, nor lay around watching TV. In fact its a tough job, not as physically demanding as heavy construction, where my career was. But tough none the less. My one complaint is the nay-sayers who wrongly judge the situation. That is actually split 50-50 men women. Put me in a study group!


Comments 5 of 74


Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC


  • Kinetic sculpture violinClick Watch

    The "kinetic sculpture" that can replicate digital files and play them on a violin

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.