Written by Heather Burke Tuesday, August 14 2012
Snapshot: Liza Mundy, Author of “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family”
“It’s a profound change in the balance of economic power, a striking role reversal and one that was unplanned, barely noticed, in fact, sneaking up on the Hawkins family when nobody was looking…You laugh, but that Big Flip is just around the corner.”
That’s a quote from Liza Mundy’s new book, “The Richer Sex,” predicting an era of female economic dominance – in the household and the economy – as women surpass men’s earning power and, along the way, turn gender roles and relations upside down.
The author of “Everything Conceivable” and “Michelle” – a biography of Michelle Obama – “The Richer Sex,” reveals how the rise of a new economic class of female breadwinners is about to change everything – from women’s bargaining power in the home, to the way women and men engage in relationships and raise families, to deeply entrenched concepts of masculinity. We’re talking a potential “breakthrough in the relationship between the sexes.”
“The Richer Sex”– a compelling, woven narrative of historical trends, personal interviews and cutting-edge research – landed the cover story on Time Magazine’s March 2012 issue and has triggered national conversation since its release.
Mundy is a New York Times best-selling author and an award-winning journalist for The Washington Post, where she has covered family life, popular culture, the arts and politics. Mundy’s work can also be found in Slate, Lingua Franca, Redbook, Washington City Paper and The Washington Monthly. She lives in Arlington, Va. with her husband and two children.
Womenetics: Tell us about the phenomenon you describe as the Big Flip.
Liza Mundy: I’m talking about a world where more women are supporting households than men, upending an order that has been in place for centuries. Currently, in the U.S. nearly 40 percent of working wives outearn their husbands, and more than half of women, married and single, are household breadwinners.
Womenetics: What is causing this shift?
Mundy: Feminism and its victories, declining discrimination (though it’s not yet vanquished), women’s rising educational attainment (currently, women take the majority of associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees and Ph.D.s), women’s rising ambition for themselves and the movement of the economy away from an industrial-based economy toward a knowledge-based economy, which rewards women’s educational achievement.
Womenetics: As traditional gender expectations loosen, what impact do you predict this phenomenon could have on women’s advancement in the workplace?
Mundy: I think it will help women’s advancement, as more and more men are willing to invest in women’s careers. Traditionally men have been reluctant to move for a wife’s job or make other compromises for her career, but this is changing thanks to the fact that more and more women are entering relationships in which they, the women, have more earning potential and education than their partners. Increasingly men perceive this and are willing to invest in women’s careers.
Womenetics: What impact might this transformation have on the business community?
Mundy: Well, already the consumer marketplace is responding to women’s earning — and buying — power and so is the housing market. With more and more affluent single women in the market for homes, developers are building luxury two and three bedroom dwellings for women who can afford their own place and don’t plan to wait for marriage to buy something. I interviewed lots of young, affluent women homeowners.
Womenetics: What piqued your interest in this subject?
Mundy: The data: Women are 57 percent of college and university students; young, single women outearning men in most American cities; 40 percent of working wives outearning their mates. That’s a shift worth exploring.
Womenetics: In what ways are women’s lives changing as their income increases and they begin to surpass men’s earning power?
Mundy: This question occupies chapters and chapters in my book. It’s hard to summarize. Certainly, there are women and men who have trouble adapting to this new state of affairs, but it can also — I argue — be a liberation for both genders. Women can thrive, and men can be judged as mates on qualities other than simply their earning and breadwinning ability. It points to an expansion of possibilities for both genders.
Womenetics: How are men responding to this transition?
Mundy: Some fight it; some are resentful. Others are admiring of and supportive of their wives. Studies show that men increasingly realize that it’s a good thing to have a productive, well-educated, high-earning partner. In the past five decades, studies show when men are asked to identify the traits important in a potential mate, “financial prospects” has risen more than any other trait.
Womenetics: Among the new possibilities afforded to high-earning women, what opportunity did the women report enjoying the most?
Mundy: I think they most enjoyed the opportunity to actualize themselves and really flourish in the workplace. Some high-achieving women also found that it was a great relief to have their husbands at home, running the household and taking the kids to school and lessons - it eased the stress and was much easier for them, they reported, than having a two-income household where both spouses were working and stressed all the time.
“It was just a great relief,” said one health-care executive when her husband decided he enjoyed being home with their young girls. Sixteen years later, she said, “We never looked back.”
Womenetics: Is there a difference between a woman’s role as a primary breadwinner or co-earner and how traditional gender roles play out at home?
Mundy: Back in the 1980s and 1990s, some studies found that women breadwinners worked doubly hard to seem conventionally feminine when they got home — that is, they actually did more housework than they otherwise might. However, more recent studies have called that scholarship into question; probably it wasn’t true at the time, and it’s not true now.
Womenetics: Any research findings that you found particularly interesting or unexpected?
Mundy: I found the above data — the extent of the female breadwinning phenomenon — probably most unexpected. Starting out, I didn’t realize how pervasive it had become for women of all ages and income levels in all parts of the country, in all races and ethnicities.
Anecdotally, I was also surprised by how many affluent, high-achieving single women, when they are at bars or out meeting men, lie about what they do. They minimize their income and achievements.
Womenetics: What advice do you have for all of the women breadwinners and high-earning women out there?
Mundy: Stop minimizing your achievements. Be proud of what you have accomplished. Partner with men who support and applaud you.
More women with financial insights:
Personal finance expert Manisha Thakor's "MoneyZen" philosophy encourages women to address their finances with calm and confidence. Get her tips on budgeting, saving and debt management.
Suzanne Durbin is touting a different approach to the money-happiness connection that is turning the traditional wealth management model on its head.
Women are left out of many financial decisions in the household, but Teresa Dentino -- one of the first female stockbrokers in the country and a pioneer in the financial education of women -- is working to change that.
Heather Burke has more than eight years experience working with partners in the public and private sectors to promote women’s empowerment and develop innovative investment strategies for community development. She has worked in 12 countries on initiatives spanning women's and girls’ leadership, education, income generation, social entrepreneurship, public health, food security, political participation, and environmental conservation. She is a social venture consultant based outside of Washington, D.C.