“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.

More evidence that Americans don’t like answering survey questions about income

While looking at data about the wage gap between men and women, two researchers discovered that respondents to the American Community Survey may not been completely correct in stating their incomes or the incomes of others in their households:

The authors, whose study will be published in the journal Social Science Research, identified these biases by examining data from the American Community Survey, which is also conducted by the Census Bureau. Respondents are interviewed multiple times, one year apart. When the researchers looked at how responses to these questions changed across the subsequent interviews (controlling for other factors), they found that people answered more generously for themselves than other people had for them.About half of the data on this income question in the American Community Survey have long come from “proxy reporters” — people answering on behalf of others in their household. In the early ’80s, a majority of these proxy reporters were women. “They were simply around to answer the phone call,” Reynolds said, noting that women had not entered the work force full time back then to the extent that they have today.

On the whole, these female survey respondents likely under-reported the income of their husbands, and over-reported their own — creating the skewed impression that the gender gap in America was much smaller in the early ’80s than it really was…

Once Reynolds and Wenger had calculated the extent of these biases, they went back to the data we’ve long used to measure the wage gap and readjusted it. Over time, as more women have entered the labor force, men have also become more likely to answer these surveys for themselves. And that impacts the data, too. The existing analysis — based on what the authors call the “naïve approach” to this data — suggested that the wage gap in America between 1979 and 2009 closed by about 16 percent (or $1.19 per hour). Wenger and Reynolds put that number instead at 22 percent (or $1.76). And so we have been 50 percent off in this basic calculation.

Interesting finding. As I tell my students, how you collect the data matters a lot for your conclusions. How much will other researchers be willing to change their data and conclusions based on this “quirk” in the data? No other researcher had ever thought about this before or have others considered the issue and moved forward anyway?

Researchers need to be particularly careful in dealing with questions about income. The researcher will have to find some sort of compromise where you can get the most fine-grained data while making sure that people are still willing and able to answer the question. If you ask about specific incomes, you are likely to get a lot of missing data as people are not comfortable answering. If you ask too broadly (say by having really large categories), you may not be able to do much with the data.

Does this suggest that other surveys that ask a single person to report on their whole household may also be skewed?

Male/female wage gap reversed for “unmarried, childless women under 30 who live in cities”

The gap between male and female earnings has been a persistent feature in American society for decades. However, recent research suggests that a certain group of women are now outearning men:

[A]ccording to a new analysis of 2,000 communities by a market research company, in 147 out of 150 of the biggest cities in the U.S., the median full-time salaries of young women are 8% higher than those of the guys in their peer group. In two cities, Atlanta and Memphis, those women are making about 20% more. This squares with earlier research from Queens College, New York, that had suggested that this was happening in major metropolises.

Here’s the slightly deflating caveat: this reverse gender gap, as it’s known, applies only to unmarried, childless women under 30 who live in cities. The rest of working women — even those of the same age, but who are married or don’t live in a major metropolitan area — are still on the less scenic side of the wage divide.
The article discusses the main causal factors identified by authors: “a growing knowledge-based economy, the decline of a manufacturing base and an increasing minority population.”
At first glance, this may not be that surprising considering the number of women enrolling in and earning degrees at college. Additionally, the restructuring of the American economy away from manufacturing jobs and toward a service/knowledge economy has hit male dominated fields hard.
This bears watching.