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Breadwinner Moms: Good or Bad for Society?

Women in the Workforce and Changing Family Dynamics

Is it a good thing that increasingly women are becoming the main breadwinner in the family? According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, women are now the sole or primary wage earner in 40 percent of households with children aged 18 or younger. But women aren't the only ones who've seen their traditional roles upended: Surveys conducted by marketers and advertisers show that an ever-growing number of men are becoming the primary shoppers for their households.

The Pew study carried both optimistic and pessimistic news. On the bright side, it revealed that an impressive 37 percent of “breadwinner moms” are married women who make more money than their husbands. These mothers tend to be older, colleges educated, and have a median family income of $80,000 -- about $30,000 more than the median for all U.S. families. And, while these married earners comprise less than half of all breadwinner moms, their share of the total is growing: The number of women who out-earn their husbands has nearly quadrupled from 4 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 2011.

Unfortunately, the number of single mothers has almost kept pace: Between 1960 and 2011, the share of households headed by single moms rose from 7 percent to 25 percent of families. And, while the rising number of married breadwinner moms reflects society's increasing opportunities for women, the story told by the growth in single-mother-headed households is not so optimistic: Younger and less likely to hold a college degree, single mothers have far less earning potential than their married sisters. In fact, the median income for a single mother household is $23,000 -- just 28 percent of the income of one in which the female breadwinner is married, and less than half the median household income in America.

The Pew study identifies several reasons for the rise of breadwinner moms: Over the last few decades, married rates have declined,  the number of women in the workplace has increased, and the number of women earning college degrees now outstrips the number of men doing so.

Another reason is historical: The Great Recession of 2008 was, in many ways, a “mancession,” with an outsized impact on male-dominated professions like manufacturing and construction. At the height of the recession, some estimates suggested that up to 80 percent of job losses hit men. And, while many of those men have since returned to work, a large number have moved on to a more traditionally female sphere: the home.

In 2011, advertising agency Allen and Gerritsen conducted a survey on household work patterns. Forty-four percent of the study's male respondents "stated that they have the sole responsibility for grocery shopping for their households." The same number claimed responsibility for non-grocery shopping. In the same study, 52 percent of male respondents reported that they shared responsibility for "transporting kids to activities" and "attending school meetings." Fifty percent reported that they shared responsibility for "helping kids with homework."

Advertisers aren't the only ones who have recognized the shift toward men at home and women at work: the  Census Bureau reports that, between 1995 and 2011, the number of stay-at-home dads nearly tripled, from 64,000 to 176,000. In 2010, the Census notes, 17 percent of preschoolers were being cared for by their fathers while their mothers were at work.

As the numbers have shifted, however, public attitudes have remained mixed regarding the impact of working mothers on families. People are not at all sure that it's a good thing. Demographers say the change is all but irreversible and is likely to bring added attention to child-care policies as well as government safety nets for vulnerable families.

"This change is just another milestone in the dramatic transformation we have seen in family structure and family dynamics over the past 50 years or so," said Kim Parker, associate director with the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project. "Women's roles have changed, marriage rates have declined - the family looks a lot different than it used to. The rise of breadwinner moms highlights the fact that, not only are more mothers balancing work and family these days, but the economic contributions mothers are making to their households have grown immensely."

The trend is being driven mostly by long-term demographic changes, including higher rates of education and labor force participation dating back to the 1960s women's movement. Today, women are more likely than men to hold bachelor's degrees, and they make up nearly half - 47 percent - of the American workforce.

I believe it is good for our society that more women have become the main breadwinners for their families. From my perspective as a college educator, I always find female students more mature than their male counterparts and more eager to learn. My grades confirm those observations.  

I also think, in general, women are more caring than men, more sensitive to others’ needs, and more driven to succeed – all important factors in creating an ethical workplace culture. In some respects I would say that men have screwed things up long enough and it’s time to encourage women to take leadership roles in business and the government.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 21, 2013