The richer sex (is men)

Time‘s cover story this week is adapted from The Richer Sex, a forthcoming book by Liza Mundy. I provided a few numbers for the story (see below). The content is behind a pay wall here, but the cover gives a taste:

My only beef with the story is that it misidentifies the richer sex, which I’ll return to below. Otherwise, it’s an interesting piece on the (very partial) convergence in roles among married couples. Despite the current stall in progress toward equality, I’m glad to see an article with a positive take on the idea of equality (for middle class straight couples, at least) without focusing on the demise of men.

They only used two of the numbers I sent, so consider the other 9 numbers here a Family Inequality blog exclusive!

First, I showed them the trend in the gender composition of managers from 1980 to 2010. I used the 1990 occupational categories for this (from IPUMS), in the vain hope of maintaining consistency over time*:

My emphasis was on the stall in progress since 1990, so I ended up in the “on the other hand” paragraph of the story.

The other piece of “other hand” I pitched to them was the segregation among managers — with women concentrated in some corners of the managerial world — which I mentioned here, and which Matt Huffman and I studied here. For 2010, that segregation, in broad strokes, looks like this:

This didn’t make it into the story. There was to be only one “on the other hand” paragraph. It’s all about how women are pulling ahead of men and becoming the primary breadwinners, and what that means for gender and relationships.

Of course, women are not yet the richer sex, so the evidence in the article is about trends in that direction. The text says, for example:

Assuming present trends continue, by the next generation, more families will be supported by women than by men.

By the time the graphics department got to it, the “assuming…” part was gone, and this was the header:

The numbers that support this are the trend from 24% of wives out-earning their husbands in 1987 to 38% in 2009 (helped considerably by the mancession’s crimp on men’s jobs in 2008 and 2009). Here’s their graph:

Going from 24% to 38% in 22 years doesn’t mean we’ll pass 50% in another generation. It might be OK for rhetorical purposes to say something like, “at this rate it’ll take 300 years for the U.S. to catch Sweden’s welfare state” — but not OK to say it will happen in that time. If that were true, I could show you this graph and say, “the Earth will be a ball of human flesh expanding at the speed of light in less than 1,000 years!”

Besides projecting from the trend, the other reasonable way to make guesses about the future is to look at young people. For that Liza Mundy reuses a statistic that Time first used in 2010, showing that among those who are single, child free, under 30 and living in metro areas, women have higher earnings than men.

Great, you’re thinking, stay young and single, and don’t have children, and equality is yours!

I do believe our children are the future, but predicting the future from this subset is not a safe bet. The original Time piece is critiqued here and here, although the New York Times hit on this formula for gender equality in 2007 (critiqued here). The basic manipulation here is limiting the comparison to men versus women within a group where women are more likely to have completed college but not yet experienced the wage-diminishing events that now largely begin in the late 20s (marriage, children, and slower earnings growth). It’s an interesting comparison, but shouldn’t be used for projecting the future — or even characterizing the whole present.

Anyway, interesting story.

*There can be no perfectly matching set of occupational categories over long periods of time, because the type of work being done has changed. For example, there were no computer programmers or “customer service representatives” to speak of in 1980, and there are millions now.

17 thoughts on “The richer sex (is men)

  1. Phil,
    I run the research and analytics firm that cranked out the data finding that the median income of young/single/childless women is higher than for their male counterparts, and I thought it might be worth commenting.

    While we’ve disagreed on some points in the past given that we’re looking at the data from different angles, I find your blog worth reading and even chipping in at times.

    I fully concur that the data on median income for that cohort of young women does not necessarily predict the *future* of the workforce. It’s just one snapshot from a specific cohort from 2008-2010. In our shop, it’s merely one of the indicators that we use to determine how consumer spending patterns are shifting. Our current hypothesis is that this is likely to be a persistent trend (but as you point out, that doesn’t automatically mean an accelerating trend) since the runway for staying single and childless (at least among certain segments of the population) continues to extend.

    While we stick with a focus on consumer markets rather than the labor market, our hunch is that the ability for that generation of young women to impact the underlying structure of the workplace will depend in part on the tightness of the labor market. If it tightens up, then this generation of young women might end up with the leverage to push for systemic positive change as they move through different life stages. If the slack in the labor market persists, that may be much harder to do. But that’s just a guess since that’s not our area.

    On a related note, one of the common critiques on the news coverage of this data is about how it can’t be correct when gender segregation remains prevalent in the workplace. This specific set of data actually concurs with that. While the median income for this specific cohort of young women is higher than men in most metro areas, that’s not the case in communities where the labor market is skewed by a dominant high-paying industry (e.g., software engineering or oil drilling) with intense gender segregation. But I don’t want to take away anything from this generation of young women. They’re clocking guys in educational attainment, and I hope my daughter continues that trend.

    I guess one of the main points that both of us are flagging is that there’s a lot of complexity behind this topic. But worth pondering, whether as a sociologist, or as a research and analytics firm examining this data for implications in the consumer market, or as an interested reader of TIME.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your provocative insights and analysis through your blog. Sometimes I hate what I see when open it up…but it’s one of the few blogs that I’ll open regularly since it’s often pretty meaningful stuff.


    1. James – more than just the tightness of the labor market and gender segregation within segments of the market are other factors that might lead a cohort of women earning more than men to lag later in life. While you are arguing that we should examine the cohort effect, I think that Phil is right that the age effect (or, probably more appropriately, the life-course effect) is what leads to diminishing wage parity between men and women.

      I hope that this generation sees more parity than previous ones; however, I also want to remain cautious that such trends will hold given the social constraints on women’s employment.


  2. Hi Philip, I’m a subscriber to your blog and wanted to ask if you would be interested in helping me promote my film I just recently launched a kickstarter campaign and it would be great to be able to promote it more widely! Thank you! Kate


  3. The statistic is misleading about 38 percent of working wives. It includes unemployed/nonworking husbands but not wives in the same state. In households where both are working its actually 28 percent. It is essentially useless as a statistic.


  4. Don’t know why this Liza Mundy’ study don’t have more responses, it’s pure garbage. Her inequality data, especially about couples, is overly nonsense. I don’t find any other study that comes near to those conclusions.


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