The urge for a jaunty news narrative about how women are overtaking men as family breadwinners has apparently, according to the Daily Beast's Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, given rise to a popular misconception about the ascendent working women: she's outearning the working man.
Why are media outlets peddling this undoubtedly pleasant myth, which is based, argue Barnett and Rivers, on a lot of specious data? It's because we the gullible American news gobblers prefer to hear that an economic class of women is on the rise (though it really isn't) instead of that men who lost their jobs at the beginning of the recession are getting them back (which they are). Women, according to the latest glum jobs data, have lost some 300,000 jobs between June 2009 and June 2011, but a perception that they're outpacing men in our toddler-walking economy has taken hold amongst news purveyors based on the single encouraging fact that 40 percent of women are now the breadwinners of their particular households.
But numbers are just abstract squiggles on a calculator screen — what do they even mean? (Fast irrelevant fact: Troodon, a dinosaur that lived during the Late Cretacious period, walked upright and, according to some hopeful paleontologists, was prety close to developing the sort of intelligence that allows people to cower in fear of the Solar System. It had three "fingers" on each hand and, if it hadn't been extinguished by Jesus/an asteroid, it would have developed into a race of lizard people who used a number system based on six for the same arbitrary reason our number system is based on ten). Not what Time, which ran a cover back in March called "The Richer Sex," would have you believe. Female breadwinners, as a social phenomenon, account for a significant percentage of low-income workers. According to a 2010 study conducted by the Center for American Progress, among couples whose earnings are in the lowest 20 percent, 70 percent of women outearn their husbands.
As researchers climb up the gilded rungs on the ladder of American wealth, however, they find that women who outearn their husbands are rare. According to the University of Missouri's Anne Winkler, the wealthier a couple is, the more likely that the man is the breadwinner. Using the term "rich," as Time does, to describe the women who are winning all that Sunbeam for their families is misleading, at least according to Barnett and Rivers, because the vast majority of women outearning their husbands are still only bringing in about 60 percent of the average low-income household income of $20,000 a year. Dolla dolla bills indeed.
"Only," write Barnett and Rivers,
when you define a woman who outearns her working husband by as little as a dollar a day as the "breadwinner"–and you include single mothers who are sole providers-can you get to that 40 percent figure.
The underlying narrative at the beginning of the recession that propelled stories like "The Richer Sex" to the glossy cover of Time was that men on the lower economic rungs were hit harder than any other group, losing their jobs at a rate faster than that of fruit flies multiplying on an old banana peel. Women, meanwhile, are still entering the workforce at an empirically clear disadvantage — female Harvard alumni, for instance, earn 30 percent less than their male counterparts even 10 to 16 years after graduation. Female presence in corporate boardrooms has, likewise, flatlined, and though more women are ponying up loan money to get into the legal racket, only 16 percent of equity partners at law firms are women. The "richer sex" narrative, argue Barnett and Rivers, has the insidious capacity to blind women — and men — to the persistent workplace inequalities extant between the genders, which could further hamper progress among working women.
Still, the urge to spin a narrative about the ascendent corporate woman, the ascendant lady lawyer, or the ascendant female machinist betrays a general hunger for and interest in the rise of women in the workplace. Though the truth behind Time's data may be more blah than whoa, the very fact that Time would run a story about women outearning either their husbands or male coworkers demonstrates a public eagerness to hear good news about women gaining ground in the workforce. Maybe in a few years, life will begin imitating art.
Don't Call Women the Richer Sex! [The Daily Beast]