The great pay shift

Sooner than anyone seems to expect, British women will be richer than British men

8 September 2012

The news, when it emerged this summer, had an air of inevitability: women for the first time are scoring higher on IQ tests than men. Girls have long been doing better than boys in GCSEs and today they make up the majority of university students. When they graduate, they’re more likely than men to find work and an increasing number are now the family breadwinners. The word ‘pursewhipped’ — referring to men being in financial thrall to women — is slowly entering the English language, and with it the understanding that this is not about equality. Britain, like many other places, is witnessing a gender power flip.

It is odd that this phenomenon should be the subject of jokes when its implications are so far-reaching. But five years ago, there was one senior politician whom no one could accuse of not taking women seriously. When Boris Johnson was higher education spokesman, he noticed that it had become a women’s game. ‘Far more women than men are now receiving what is, in theory, an elite academic education,’ he wrote. ‘It is a stunning fact, the biggest social revolution of our lifetime.’ By the time these graduates have reached the peak of their careers, ‘the entire management structure of Britain will have been transformed and feminised… This thing is huge, and it is happening at every level, and no one seems to be thinking about the -consequences.’

For the last few years, I have been thinking about those consequences. I wrote a book, The Richer Sex, about the power flip under way in America. When I dug into the British data the trend was, if anything, more pronounced. But there is one crucial difference: in Britain, this change is largely seen as a lifestyle issue; men who depend on their wives financially are seen as a semi-comic anomaly. In the US, it is seen as nothing less than the rewiring of society.

Brits had better start paying attention. This change will be profound, and it won’t be easy. While the United States has its tradition of machismo — cowboy culture and all that — Britain may in some ways be even more of a traditional country, where notions of chivalry and duty die hard. This will make the new economic order that much harder to accept, causing dislocation and anxiety for men and women who feel uncertain about the role they play in relationships. All those jokes have not stopped the UK from following the US into an era where women, not men, will be the top earners in their households, sometimes in partnerships, sometimes as single women as well as single mothers.

The advent of female breadwinning — large-scale, everyday female breadwinning — is seen by some as a crime against nature. But it’s here to stay and will alter the way men and women date, mate, marry, plan, cook, clean, entertain, talk, retire, have sex, raise children and feel happy (or fail to do so). The power flip will change our most intimate conversations and the face of public life. Within a generation, Britain will not hear any more concerns about too few women being on the boards of public companies. There may be quotas for men.

More women, being self-sufficient, will choose to remain single, or cohabit. When women do marry, more will be obliged to marry ‘down’, to less educated men (taking a cue from same-sex couples, who have always been more willing to pair up outside traditional boundaries). And yet women will be freer than ever to marry for love.

As male domesticity becomes more accepted, couples will argue over who has to be the breadwinning partner and who gets to be the one with the cool part-time entrepreneurial job. Women will be better equipped to play the field sexually before settling down, as men have done for ages. Men may find they need marriage more than women, and start to panic if they haven’t found a partner by a certain age. Even homes will change: man-caves will become a thing of the past, because the whole house becomes a man-cave, with men dominating kitchens, furnishing them, equipping them with blow torches and Japanese sushi knives in the effort to find something new to bring to the table.

The idea of a power flip is especially alarming to men when you think how things were just a few generations ago. Male fears about women turning into nagging shrews when they have too many financial resources is one reason why, for much of history, a woman’s property — even her identity — was subsumed into her husband’s when she married. Women’s dependence was seen as so crucial to social stability that the notion of property rights for wives was seen as an existential threat to British society. In 1868, a Times editorial spelled this out. Marriage, it said, should consist of ‘authority on the one side and subordination on the other’. Male authority rested in economic power; if a wife has her own resources, ‘what is to prevent her from going where she likes and doing what she pleases?’

The theme was picked up by feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, who saw economic independence as central to women’s liberation, even their full humanity. Like Virginia Woolf, de Beauvoir argued that for centuries — millennia, even — men used economic power to buy women’s domestic services, ensure their sexual fidelity, deny them schooling and a role in public affairs. De Beauvoir called this ‘the deal’ and argued that women were poorer in every sense for accepting it.

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Now ‘the deal’ is off — or rather, the terms of the deal are changing radically. In Britain, women receive 58 per cent of all undergraduate degrees. Half of trainee barristers and 56 per cent of medical students are women, compared with 25 per cent in the 1960s. When Diana married Prince Charles, she was only 20 and that was not (then) seen as too young. Kate Middleton married at 29, after enduring much jeering from unkind souls calling her ‘waity Katie’.

In fact, both royal marriages reflected the trend in British life. The average woman now marries at 30, as against 23 when Diana was taking her vows. Women are taking longer than ever to learn, earn, and then pick a man. It’s also characteristic of their eras that Diana was less educated than her husband, while the Duchess of Cambridge stands to be Britain’s first university–educated queen.

There are a number of reasons why all this is happening. As vestiges of academic discrimination have waned and education has become more intense at earlier ages, girls are rewarded for their earlier maturity, their verbal skills and their ability to focus. Girls overtook boys in GCSE results in the mid-1980s, and continue to excel in every social group. Plus, women now set their sights higher. Economists have shown that when the Pill became widely available, young women quickly reconsidered their futures. With careers less likely to be interrupted by an unplanned pregnancy, women began investing in education and training. Parents did, too. This spring, a major US research group found that young women have higher expectations for earnings and professional advancement than young men.

As the economic downturn has made clear, countries like the US and Britain are moving away from an industrial economy in which a man with no higher education could command a family wage. We’re moving toward a knowledge-based economy in which the good jobs will go to the well-educated, and women have done a better job of preparing for it. In Britain, women account for 46 per cent of the workforce, up from 37 per cent four decades ago. Men are moving in the opposite direction: in 1979, just 9 per cent of working-age men were neither working nor looking for work; that figure is now 16 per cent.

It’s true that a gender wage gap remains, and that the average man earns 10 per cent more. But to see the future, look at today’s twenty-somethings: there, it is the women who have now opened a small gap. For many years, when a woman out-earned her husband, it tended to mean he was ailing or unemployable. This is no longer the case; female breadwinning is a phenomenon at all income levels.

Failure to accept the terms of the gender power flip can be painful, even for the victors. The women I interviewed for my book did not always see their new status as a liberation. Indeed, some are having a harder time with all this than men. Many have been told, growing up, that women must be prepared to support themselves — but supporting a partner is usually not part of that discussion. Women have been encouraged to aspire to a life of exact and perfect parity, where man and woman work the same number of hours, do the same amount of housework, make the same pay. But the truth is, especially when couples have children, it can be easier when one parent permits the other to pull ahead. More and more couples, starting out, will perceive that the woman’s earning potential is higher, and plan accordingly.

Women are often surprised to find they have ended up taking the lead role in a marriage. I interviewed some who divorced husbands who seemed to them idle, disengaged or just not trying. Among young graduates, facing a marriage pool in which women outnumber men, an obsession is growing with finding a mate ‘on my level’. Some women jump on planes, travelling to find men who share their credentials. Some respond by not marrying at all.

Failure to come to terms with the power flip is also affecting bedrooms. I interviewed a woman I’ll call Felicity, who married a gregarious salesman earning a third of what she did. But while he enjoyed the lifestyle her money could buy, he came to resent it. He started working less, playing golf more, and watching TV instead of coming to bed with her. She wasn’t surprised when she found his stash of online porn, but was still shocked. She ended up going into therapy.

‘The therapist said he’s doing that because he’s insecure — it makes him feel more manly,’ she told me. ‘I am filling the traditional male role of the primary breadwinner.’ Perhaps this explains why an academic study using Danish data found that men out-earned by their partners were more likely to take medication for erectile dysfunction. It also explains why Felicity left her husband, preferring the company of her dog, who was faithful and supportive. ‘I’ll keep the dog,’ she thought, ‘and get rid of you.’

In some ways, the Times was right all those years ago. Women with money can go where they like and do what they please (economists now call it the ‘independence effect’). So women will leave unhappy marriages; raise children alone when they don’t see viable partners; and spend more time with female friends. It’s not all a bad thing. Restaurant tables with six or eight carousing women may seem a trivial development, until you consider how hard fundamentalist and conservative societies have worked to keep women at home and closeted.

A trend is also emerging of single women who lie about their affluence, in the way that men have been known to exaggerate it. A young doctor told me that when she meets men at bars or parties, she tells them she works ‘at the hospital, taking care of patients’, encouraging them to think she’s a nurse. A university vice-president tells men she works ‘in admissions’, hoping they’ll think she’s in middle management. What these women don’t realise is that men are changing; when men are asked to identify the ideal traits in a mate, they place much less value than they once did on domestic skills, and much more on financial prospects. Men understand that having a partner who can contribute is a benefit, not a liability.

Women have a hard time believing this, but men are doing more housework than they used to (though we are still not at parity) and economists have shown that coincidentally, men started ironing when women started earning. Masculinity is also more adaptable than we give it credit for, capable of embracing golfing, hunting, childcare. This is where immersion blenders and blow torches (for the crème brûlée) really do help. Equip men with masculine domestic equipment, and the house seems hi-tech and macho. What are tools, after all, but a return to cave days?

Might genetics stop this economic phenomenon in its tracks? There is a prevalent belief that, because woman are the only ones who can give birth, they will always be attracted to hunter-gathering men. It’s not about sociology, runs the argument, it’s about nature.  But, as the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher argues, cavewomen were not exactly sitting at home watching Oprah. They foraged for roots and berries every day, while men trickled in periodically with a delectable hunting prize. Modern women, says Fisher, are returning to their original role as co-providers. ‘College is built for the female brain. What do you do in college? You sit. You read. You write and you talk.’ We have moved forward to the past, she says. ‘We’ve got 10,000 years of a belief system to shed. Nobody knows how to do it.’

Modern history has shown that human beings are, above all, astonishingly adaptable. Recently, three economists looked at marriage rates in France after the first world war, to gauge men’s willingness to marry above their social status. The economists found that in regions which had suffered higher mortality rates — that is, ones with a marked shortage of men — men were able to make better marriages, in terms of wealth and social status, and hastened to do so. The study suggests that we are a flexible species, quickly able to surmount gender stereotypes. Men will marry up, and women will marry down, calling into question the old notion that women are ‘hard-wired’ to seek providers.

So the world is changing, but attitudes need to change with it. And the problem may well not be with old-fashioned male chauvinism, but with female atavism. If ambitious women can conquer the fear of ‘marrying down’, they may understand that having a laid-back partner will help them take their own careers to a new level. I interviewed a woman whose husband worked as a car mechanic to put her through law school. She embraced it, feeling loved and taken care of, and all too happy to have a partner with whom she did not have to discuss the law.

The problem facing the British gentleman was summed up by The Spectator’s James Delingpole, who once argued that it is more important to invest in a son’s education than a daughter’s because the girl may well end up as someone’s wife. Perhaps so, but she is also more likely to graduate and be the breadwinner. Much as it may pain Brits, today’s chivalrous notions of a man’s duty may soon become as obsolete as yesterday’s notions of a women’s place. For the under-thirties, there is nothing futuristic about this: the fairer sex is becoming the richer sex. More than ever, this is becoming a women’s world. Success and happiness will probably go to the men, and women, who best adjust to the fact.

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