Does Ambivalence About Women Breadwinners Harm Families?

iStock_000006103713XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Last week Pew released the results of new research on breadwinner moms, a rising demographic within the US population. According to Pew’s analysis of US Census data, women are the sole or primary financial contributor in 40 percent of households with kids under 18.

That’s up from only 11 percent in 1960. That our society has undergone a rapid and tumultuous shift since the Mad Men era is an understatement. This is represented by the ambivalence Pew’s research revealed regarding the well-being of children raised by working women, as well as how women breadwinners might impact the so-called success of a marriage.

Older respondents were more likely to have negative feelings on both of these measures. Given this data, and considering that the leadership layers at most corporations are comprised of people of an older generation than those in their workforce – it should be no wonder that companies are having a difficult time adjusting their cultures to enable better work life fit for working parents.

The corporate environment was structured to accommodate single-income, two-parent families led by male breadwinners. Today’s situation is very different. It’s time for companies to acknowledge that reality. Many of them are, by working to implement family-friendly flex policies and telecommuting. The problem, though, is while the policies are there, having the go-ahead to actually use them is a wholly different story, and this Pew data explains one reason why. Despite the rise of women making money for their families, according to this research, many people are still not completely comfortable with it, especially those who are likely to be in charge.

Breadwinner Moms

According to Pew, the increasing proportion of breadwinner moms is driven by a few factors – mainly increased educational attainment in women alongside a rapid rise of unmarried moms. In fact, the majority (63 percent) of the breadwinner moms were heads of single-parent households. A smaller percentage (37 percent) are married women who make more than their husbands (the Pew report didn’t mention women in same-sex marriages).

Four out of five (79 percent) of Americans reject the idea that women should return to “traditional” roles, and about two thirds (67 percent) believe that an increase of working women means it’s easier for families to “live comfortably.”

But at the same time, the data reveals some uncertainty about what all of these working women mean for families. According to the report, “About half (51 percent) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8 percent say the same about a father.” Three quarters (74 percent) of respondents said the increasing proportion of women making money has made it harder to raise children. Half of respondents also said that the trend of more women working outside the home makes it harder for marriages to be successful (while 35 percent said it makes it easier). Interestingly, Pew noted that there didn’t seem to be any significant gender difference on these views.

But there was a generational gap. People 29 and younger are less likely to believe that working women have a negative effect on children and marriages. The report says:

“For example, while 78% of those adults ages 30 and older say having more women in the workforce has made it harder for parents to raise children, only 60% of those ages 18-29 agree with this assessment. Similarly, while more than half (54%) of adults ages 30 and older say the rising share of women in the workplace has made it harder for marriages to be successful, only 36% of young adults agree.”

It would be interesting to see this data divided into greater specificity around generations, but Pew did not provide that detail. The report does note that people in the younger age group were less likely to have children and that could influence their feelings on this topic. That said, people in the younger age group were also probably more likely to have had working mothers themselves compared to the older group, and that could account for their differing views on the subject as well.

What Does It Mean for Families?

This generational ambivalence may have a real effect on the ability of women to advance at work. It also may have an effect on how well working women are able to provide for their families.

The Pew research notes that when married women make more than their husbands, the household is likely to earn more altogether. Single working mothers are likely to earn the least overall, the report says. “The median total family income of married mothers who earn more than their husbands was nearly $80,000 in 2011, well above the national median of $57,100 for all families with children, and nearly four times the $23,000 median for families led by a single mother.”

While the folks in charge are hand-wringing about the effects of working mothers on kids and marriages, women continue to earn less for doing the same jobs as men and get promoted to fewer leadership roles. This gap begins early, and it is real and measurable. For example, the Harvard Crimson reported last week that male Harvard grads expect to earn significantly more than their female counterparts in their first jobs – even those seeking work within the same fields.

“Among students entering finance, men are still nearly four times as likely to earn more than $110,000 per year, and three times as likely to earn $90,000 to $110,000. Admittedly, the sample sizes are small. But the same holds true in consulting. And in technology and engineering, 79 percent of men expect to make more than $90,000, compared to just 44 percent of women in the same field.”

According to Pew, since 2007, the percentage of moms who would like to work full time has jumped from 20 percent to 32 percent. The percentage of moms who’d rather not work at all dropped in the same time span from 29 percent to 20 percent. The cultural shift that began in the 1960s is still going on, whether we’re ready for it or not, and that influences whether workplaces are willing to accommodate working parents.

Carol Evans, President of Working Mother Media, commented, “Many people don’t realize that Working Mother measures usage of work life policies as a criteria for winning on our WM 1000 Best Companies. This is because some companies have policies that are supportive of working mothers but lack the culture that allows moms to feel confident about using the benefits.”

She continued, “When women feel there is a stigma attached to using flexible work arrangements or taking the full maternity leave it’s almost worse than not having the policies at all. Companies need to make it very clear that they expect their employees to take advantage of the benefits that will support their families.”

Moreover, she added, “When leaders within the company use benefits it provides great role modeling. When companies promote people who use benefits, employees start to believe its okay.”

Women are not leaving the workforce, nor, as Pew’s research shows, does society want them to. If leaders are truly worried about how women making money might affect their families, they should work to make wages fair and equal, and make corporate work life programs truly accessible to all working parents.

3 Responses

  1. Great points. And I would add, families should make sure they are doing all they can around the house so breadwinning mothers don’t have to carry the load (of laundry) at home. As mom works more outside the home, her family needs to do more inside the home.

  2. Laurie H. Liu

    I view this issue as something to do with power. I would be interested in hearing some marriage counseling experts regarding this issue. The capability to making income has to do with a woman’s talent and will power (to have a career) but has little to do with the role of a wife and a mother. I suspect that failed relationships are caused by deeper factors than the apparent title or income differences between the husband and the wife. The fact that some men who are in more powerful positions force their wives to give up their careers are condescending and patronizing. I’ve also seen marriages failed this way also. With respect to young children, there are definitely benefits to actually be with their parents, both mothers and fathers. People tend to ignore the fact that fathers’ presence actually plays an important role in building the child’s character and personality. People take their paid days off to attend school events and the like to show that they care. In addition, when the child turns school age, it is not a bad idea to talk to them about the importance of work and career to the overall well being of his/her parents and the whole family. I recall that when I was a child and playing with kids, I never felt pitiful because my parents were not around. I don’t know of many mothers who actually don’t want to be with their children or who don’t care about how they are doing. Because they have busy schedules, they’ll have to be creative about scheduling and they can’t make it to every school event.

    I can’t cite enough women who set aside time (such as Friday evenings and/or Saturday) to spend time with family. (At the same time, I also know women who don’t work and who are not reading to their children. Go figure!)

    To summarize, a successful marriage takes effort and work which involves critical decision-making for the family, which include the husband, the wife and the children. It would be oversimplified to cut either the wife or the husband’s career for resolve the issue. Having long recognized the issue, many companies offer flex-time, telecommuting and on-site childcare facilities. Further, help finding reliable and trustworthy nannies/sitters can also help. Beyond this, communicating with colleagues at all levels is critical.

  3. Lisa H

    This is an intersting article and encouraging about how opinions in the younger generation are changing. Wonder how many working moms have also met with discouraging comments from friends and colleagues regarding having Dad stay home and having Mom work. My husband I recently discussed going from a 2 to a 1 parent working household (because I make enough for us to live on). When I tell friends or colleagues about it, their reaction (man or woman) is all the same – which is “oh he wont be happy, he will feel worthless. He needs to feel his worth and so he needs to work.” I cant tell you how much this comment infuriates me — why dont women need to feel worth? Why is it ok for a woman to stay at home and take care of the house but not a man? When the person who its affecting is ok with it (ie my husband) why do others offer such a skeptical opinion and tend to provide doomsday scenarios about how it will work out? Anyone else have experience with this?