“Almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now out-earn their husbands”

This isn’t too surprising considering the number of women getting college and graduate degrees today, but a new statistic puts those education figures in a different light: “almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now out-earn their husbands.”

Reading Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy’s book, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, out this March, was a genuine shock. Based on 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures hot off the press (a government economist slipped Mundy the stats before they were published, in fact), “almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now out-earn their husbands.” While that’s not the majority-grandiose subtitles definitely are the norm-it’s darn close to it. (For the record, my guess was 25 percent, the figure in the early ’90s.)

Luckily for my ego, Mundy tells me in an interview that she too was surprised at the 40 percent, and, better yet, she says, “Most of the expert readers I’ve given the manuscript to don’t believe it.” The lofty number of female breadwinners, or more accurately, female primary breadwinners, isn’t just a product of our devastating recession. As has been well publicized, largely male employment sectors such as manufacturing did contract the most during the recent economic downturn, accelerating the trend. But since way back in 1987, the slice of wives taking home more than their husbands has risen steadily, by a percentage point or so every year.

That’s principally because so many more women than men are getting undergraduate and postgrad degrees-by 2050, there will be 140 college-educated women in the U.S. for every 100 similar men-and because the economy is bifurcating between low-skill, low-wage jobs and high-skill, higher paying ones (that require a bachelor’s or more), with the middle emptying out.

Indeed, another title of Mundy’s book could’ve been The Big Flip. It’s the phrase she uses to denote the time not so far away-2025 is her hunch, based on her impressive research, which, in addition to a data dump, includes interviews with scores of ordinary people living the new reality-when more than half of the earners-in-chief in American households will be women. (Another factoid pointing toward the imminence of the flip: Nine out of the 10 U.S. job categories expected to grow most in the next decade-nursing, accounting, postsecondary teaching-are female dominated.)

While this is a weirdly casual account of these figures, the author is correct in suggesting this could lead to big changes in relationships and the established patriarchy.

One issue I haven’t seen raised when looking at data like this is while women may be making more money and be getting more degrees, will they really be in positions of power in society? While women may have relative power in the household (though having an economic edge doesn’t necessarily translate into more power), this doesn’t necessarily mean that these women have power in their workplace. You could end up with a situation where women’s status at home is up, which I think some would see as is a good thing, but they are still subordinates in male-led careers and workplaces, which would not be viewed as positively.

Why veterinary medicine is a female dominated field

Sociologists have long been interested in why certain career fields are dominated by men or women. A recent article in Social Forces examines why veterinary medicine is dominated by women:

More women than men are applying for veterinary school—making up as much as 80 percent of applicants at some schools. That’s not because men are avoiding perceived lower wages in veterinary medicine, says one researcher. It’s because male applicants are avoiding fields filled with women.

That’s the conclusion of Anne Lincoln, an assistant sociology professor at Southern Methodist University, whose study of the changing face of veterinary medicine is the first to look at gender in college applications from 1975 to 1995. Lincoln used decades of surveys and application information shared by the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges in her recently published study, “The Shifting Supply of Men and Women to Occupations: Feminization in Veterinary Education,” in the journal Social Forces.

In addition to men’s “preemptive flight” from female-dominated colleges, Lincoln also attributes veterinary medicine’s gender shift to women’s higher graduation rates from college as well as the landmark 1972 federal amendment that prohibited discrimination by gender in college applications. Women have been enrolling in college in greater numbers since 1972, according to Lincoln.

I would like to hear more about this argument and the idea of “preemptive flight”: so men who are interested in veterinary medicine go to class or the department, see it is dominated by women, and then choose another field. How did this happen in the first place in this particular field – was there an important tipping point? What fields do the men who wanted to go into this field then go into because of the surplus of women in veterinary medicine?

It is also interesting that Lincoln suggests the trends in this field are likely to occur several decades down the road in the fields of law and medicine. If this idea of “preemptive flight” is pervasive in any field dominated by women, what happens when there are fewer and fewer careers where men can flee to?