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Pie Charts And Apple Pie

When a wife makes more than her husband, things aren't as different as you'd think.
In August, the Census Bureau released a startling new finding: In 22% of dual-earner families, women earn more than their husbands or partners. When this news was announced, the media took flight--with talk shows and news shows debating and discussing this new trend in American life.

Many in the media assumed marriages would suffer. When colleagues Stacy Kim, Terry Bond, and I began analyzing our own nationally representative sample of the U.S. workforce several months earlier for our paper, "Women Who Earn More Than Their Husbands Or Partners" (Families and Work Institute, July 2001), we had many similar questions.

We wondered what proportion of employed women in the United States earn more than their husbands or partners. Using a stricter definition of "earning more" than the Census Bureau did (it used $1 more) and data that was two years older, we found that in 17% of families, the wife earns at least 5% more than her husband or partner; in 11%, the wife earns at least 25% more.

We wondered whether couples in which women earn more are better-off financially. The media image of top-earning women is that of corporate executives, CFOs, and CIOs. But, in fact, this trend is very much a middle-class phenomenon. The financial situations of couples in which women earn more aren't different from those of couples in which men earn more. Female primary earners earn less than male primary earners on average, while male secondary earners earn more than female secondary earners.

When women are top earners, do they do any less housework? No! These women spend much more time doing housework than their husbands do on both workdays and non-workdays: 2.8 hours on workdays for women and 1.7 hours for their husbands. They spend the same amount of time on housework as women who are secondary earners. In other words, "the second shift" for all employed women is alive and well. As Bond says, "Women who are the breadwinners are still the breadbakers."

So what about the children? We found that women who are the top earners spend more time taking care of and doing things with their children than their husbands do--even on workdays (2.8 hours for women; 2.1 hours for their husbands). However, they do spend less time with their children on workdays (but not on non-workdays) than women who are secondary earners.

And time for themselves? Again, women who are top earners spend less time on themselves than men who are top earners do. Also, they don't spend more time on themselves than women who are secondary earners.

Does this take a toll on their marriages? In the wake of the new Census Bureau findings, many commentators assumed it must. But we've concluded that it doesn't necessarily. Women who are top earners are no less satisfied with their marriages than women who are secondary earners or men who are primary earners.

There is one caveat, a big one. It applies to those husbands who are secondary earners and who believe that the woman's place is at the home and hearth. These men are far less likely to be satisfied with their marriages. That's the bad news.

The good news? Almost three in four men who are secondary earners don't hold traditional views of women's and men's roles. In some ways, the times are a-changing.

Ellen Galinsky is the president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute

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