by Liza Mundy
While ‘any one woman is worth any ten men’ (the provocation is intentional) might seem to be easily dismissed, empirical evidence is slowly building the case. Eventually the millenia of fear-initiated oppression of the stronger sex will be overcome.
The grown-up Hawkins siblings can’t tell you why it happened, or pinpoint when, exactly, they noticed the change in their family. Maybe somebody pointed it out at their annual Christmas gathering, or during one of the big reunions the Hawkins family holds every other summer. Or maybe there never was an aha moment. The knowledge just settled in until it became a fact they all knew, but hardly thought twice about. We have become a family of female earners.
Which was not how the siblings had been raised.
The siblings – there are six of them- grew up in the Detroit, Michigan suburbs. Their mother, Marcelle Hawkins, had all six in less than six years, completing her childbearing by the time she was twenty-five and staying home to raise them. Their father, Gary, supported the family by working as an engineer for Ford. He didn’t graduate from college, because in the 1960s and 1970s a man working for the U.S. auto industry didn’t need to. During his career Gary Hawkins helped launch the Pinto, visited assembly plants and solved their problems, traveled to help open factories in other regions, and as his wife puts it, “had his hand raised” every time Ford needed an engineer to work overtime. His chief regret, in retirement, is how little he saw of the children as they grew.
In contrast to his father, the oldest Hawkins sibling, Danny, graduated from the University of Michigan and married a woman whose earning potential was as high as or higher than his was. Danny took a job in financial services but was reluctant to work the crushing overtime load his bosses expected, so in the mid-1990s he left to become the happy, fulfilled hands-on parent to their two daughters, a stay-at-home father before the term got trendy. According to his own mother, Danny runs a household every bit as well as she did. He shops and cooks with such exactitude that he rarely ends up with leftovers, maintains a budgeting system that involves placing portions of money in a box with sections designated for specific uses, keeps a color-coded family appointment calendar, and has a stair step for each member on which he places packages and other belongings. On Halloween, for fun, he tried doing a statistical analysis of trick-or-treaters to gauge how much candy to buy the following year but decided there were too many unpredictable variables. Over the years, Danny has served as treasurer of the PTA, treasurer of their homeowners association, and sympathizing treasurer of the golf club they belong to. In the evenings he is happy to listen to the workday accounts of his wife, Susan, a senior vice president with the Henry Ford Health System, her challenges and her triumphs. “I have told Susie several times that my job is to make her life easier,” says Danny. “And I like doing it.”
Meanwhile, Danny’s younger sister Leslie works in supply-chain management for a Michigan transportation and logistics company, where she has risen to be part of the top leadership team. Her own husband, Damon, who everybody thought would be a hotshot corporate lawyer and the main breadwinner in the family, instead stepped back to become the secondary earner, working as a real estate broker and becoming the on-call parent for their three children. Like his brother-in-law Danny, Damon cooks, ambitiously; golfs, formidably; drives children to lessons and sports games; clean house; and is so comfortably domesticated that when some neighbors arrived for a card game and Damon answered the door holding a dust cloth, the neighborhood began calling him “Coco”. Damon, who is known for his humor, embraced the nickname and the reputation for housekeeping excellence that goes with it.
Another grown-up Hawkins sibling, Rhonda, had no idea what she wanted to do with her life when she was a young adult. In college Rhonda changed majors so many times she stopped counting. Eventually she switched to night classes and took a job as a receptionist at Magna International, a company that supplies systems and components to the auto industry. She began working in marketing, got her degree in that field, and did so well that she finds herself- though she is too self-deprecating to allow that this is a big deal – the company’s head of global marketing. Her husband, Hank, works in the restaurant business and loves what he does, but scaled back his hours when Rhonda got a promotion that required her to take extensive overseas trips on short notice.
Another Hawkins sibling Lori, who works in finance, is in a committed relationship with another woman; both contribute monetarily to the household. The other Hawkins daughter, Shelly, is a divorced mother of two, supporting her own household with a job in the health care field.
Out of the six adult children of Gary and Marcelle Hawkins, only one- Michael- is in a traditional marriage where he has filled the role of primary earner. Six adult siblings. Five households supported by women. One generation. One complete economic flip.
It’s a profound change in the balance of economic power, a striking role reversal and one that was unplanned, barely noticed, in fact, sneaking up on the Hawkins family when nobody was looking. In a matter of decades, the traditional male breadwinner model has given way to one where women routinely support households and outearn the men they are married to, and nobody cares or thinks it’s odd. The Hawkins family – sane, functional, rooted in a Midwestern state known for family values – offers a convincing vision of what America is becoming. We are entering an era where women, not men, will become the top earners in households. We are entering the era in which roles will flip, as resoundingly as they have done in this family. You laugh, but that Big Flip is just around the corner.
Not that long ago, in 1970, the percentage of U.S. wives who outearned their husbands was in the low single digits. Some of these women were super-achievers, but more often they were women married to men who were ailing, drifting, unsteady, or unemployable. For generations, female breadwinners were mostly poor women – women whose husbands had difficulty providing. Forty years later, this template has changed dramatically, as the forces that produce female breadwinners have become more powerful and varied. Almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now outearn their husbands, a percentage that has risen steeply in this country and many others, as more women have entered the workforce and remained committed to it. Women occupy 51 percent of managerial and professional jobs in the United States, and they dominate nine of the ten U.S. job categories expected to grow the most in the next decade. Part of this ascent is due to the gradual lifting of discriminatory practices that once funneled women into lower-paying sectors and obliged them to quit work when they got married. Part is due to long-term changes in the economy that have chipped away at male sectors like construction and manufacturing while bringing big increases in women’s fields such as education and health care. And a large part is due to women’s own grit and initiative, evidenced by the fact that women now outnumber men on college campuses in the United States as well as around the world.
By the year 2050, demographers forecast, there will be 140 college-educated women in the United States for every 100 college-educated men. Globally, a generation of young women is entering the job market who are better educated than young men are, and poised to become the most financially powerful generation of women in history. In coming years, economists- who study major transitions such as the rise of agrarian society, the dawn of the industrial age, the ascent of the white-collar office worker, the opening of the global economy – will look back and see this as the era when women realized their earning power and, for the first time, outpaced their partners. “The trends are clear,” agrees Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago who pioneered the economic study of families, even predicting that “we could see a day where women, on average are earning more than men.”