Today, in 25 percent of relationships, the woman earns more. Traditions die hard, but evidence is showing that this household configuration can lead to harmony.
Paula Lang is caught between two generations of women: the one that raised her and the one her grown daughters are in. When it comes to career and
financial independence, Lang is a pioneer. Yet in her personal life, the 60-year-old is unable to leave behind outdated expectations.
Just six years after Villanova University became fully co-ed in 1968, Lang was the first woman to enroll in its business school, from which she graduated six years later. Forty years later, Lang is the finance director at the fourth-largest online job placement company in the country and for the second time is the primary breadwinner in her marriage.
Nevertheless, she is also the primary caretaker for her family. Lang comes from a traditional East Coast family. She grew up in Pennsylvania with a mother who handled all things domestic, and that’s what Lang has always done. Outside the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.—when she delegates in the office without hesitation—Lang does the cooking and majority of household chores, and helps care for her elderly mother. “It’s not the same for women of a younger age bracket,” Lang says. “Even if I’m working, I still do the housecleaning and shopping. I still do all the work. It’s totally different for my daughters. They expect 50/50. I think they’re right. I’m wrong.”
Traditions die hard, though—especially those as entrenched in society as gender roles. As Hannah Rosin, author of The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, writes in her book, “A power arrangement that’s prevailed for most of history does not fade without a ripple.” But there is no doubt the currents are shifting. In 1970, only 4 percent of married women earned more than their husbands. Now, about 25 percent do. And a 2013 Pew Research Center study finds that mothers are the primary or sole breadwinners in 40 percent of all American households. The number of women in finance with stay-at-home spouses has grown tenfold since 1980. With women making up the majority of college graduates at every level of educational attainment, those numbers are only expected to continue rising. As that happens, the reversal of gender stereotypes will become even more accelerated.
In the meantime, as Lang has discovered, redistributing the roles is more complex than just splitting the chores down the middle. While more women are pursuing careers outside the home, many still haven’t let go of their domestic workloads. A report by the New America Foundation reveals that in 70 percent of dual-earner families, women are still the primary caregivers. Other studies find that working mothers spend double the amount of time raising children as employed fathers do. “I’ve asked [my husband] to help, but it doesn’t seem to work,” Lang says. “I see an initial change, but things gradually go back to the way they were. It’s easier to do it myself.”
In the short term, that solution might be easier, but it can also breed exhaustion and resentment. Although women are now encouraged to get an education and work, they are still raised to be the nurturers—and men the providers. That’s why, says Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, relationship dynamics have been slower to change. “Women don’t fully let go, and men don’t want them to,” says Schwartz, who developed the Personality Profiler, a tool used on dating sites. “The question is, do women really want to take on a fully male role? Many don’t because it’s not what they’ve been socialized their whole lives to do.” Schwartz says that’s changing with younger generations. The separate notions of provider or caregiver are evolving into a singular teamwork approach.
The Tag-Team Approach
The collaboration method is one that Anise Wiley-Little and Brian Little have been refining for the past 34 years. From the start of their marriage, right out of college, they realized that communication and planning would be crucial. If one person is taking on greater professional responsibilities, the other knows to scale back. This give-and-take has allowed both of their corporate careers, as well as their marriage, to flourish.
Wiley-Little, previously the chief diversity officer at Allstate Insurance Company for 27 years, runs her own consulting firm; Little is the head of human resources at Zurich North America. “To us, who made more was never the issue—the question was did we have the right balance when it came to each other,” Little says.
When the Chicago couple decided to have kids, the balancing act became a bit more precarious. Like Lang, Wiley-Little’s mother had stayed at home, so she didn’t have a blueprint for how to be a working mother. That meant that she struggled to do and be everything. She had to be on every party-planning committee. She couldn’t buy cookies; she had to bake them. “That was so overwhelming,” Wiley-Little says. “Brian always understood he was an equal partner, so the things I did to myself were really self-inflicted.”
Just as she did in her professional life, Wiley-Little had to learn to delegate—and let go. The pair hired a nanny and created a list of resources to call if they needed help. They also figured out who was better at a particular task and then let that person own it. And they made sure that when one of their two kids had a game or recital, at least one parent
attended. “It’s impossible to do it all, so you make choices about what’s important and what’s not,” Wiley-Little says.
Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, says the media portrayal of the ever-present mother isn’t the norm, but women don’t realize that. “We don’t hear enough stories about women who successfully have a family and job,” she says. “Young women don’t have the picture this is possible. Really it’s happening all around us.”
With the economic downturn, many people have opted for—or been forced to convert to—dual-earner households. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, males represented about 75 percent of those booted from the workforce at the recession’s onset. In addition to the reality that it often takes two salaries to live comfortably these days, one in every two marriages ends in divorce, putting pressure on women to be able to support themselves. “It’s very dangerous for couples to rely on one income,” Barnett says. “It’s a two-income world we’re living in.”
Some say that’s a good thing. Barnett worked on a study with University of Wisconsin–Madison psychology professor Janet Hyde that analyzed two decades worth of data. It found that both men and women benefit from taking on more than one role. While working brings women added fulfillment, increased family involvement improves the well-being of men. The study even suggests there are higher divorce rates in marriages where the wife doesn’t have an income.
As more couples create family lives fundamentally different from the ones they grew up in, both partners need to carry a we’re-in-it-together attitude. This is not about who is making more, but about how to manage work and home demands. “When you treat it all as a life partnership, you don’t have to worry about inequity because you’re always moving toward the same goal,” Wiley-Little says. DW
Navigate a dual- career relationship
• Share your career goals with your partner. Plan ahead for sacrifices that may have to be made to pursue those achievements.
• Make sure both people see the relationship as a team instead of separate parts. Decide who will cover each responsibility.
• Discuss ahead of time how financial decisions will be made, so each contributor feels he or she has equal purchasing power.
• Look for other women who are balancing work and family life. Create a support network of friends, family, and professionals who can help.
• Define your values. It’s impossible to do everything. Know what matters most.
Meghan Walsh is a writer and editor living in the Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek and The Atlantic.