Myth: Women will soon be the majority of primary or sole breadwinners

The number of women breadwinners is on the rise, but the number out-earning their husbands has actually not been on the rise this decade.

Before we dig into the numbers, it helps to understand that this myth is bad for women. It bolsters the naysayers who believe the gender wage gap is not real.  After all, in their view, if women are becoming the majority of primary or sole breadwinners, how can women be earning less than men?

Some reports say women are 40% of primary or sole breadwinners.  It would be great if this figure were accurate, because it would suggest much greater progress in achieving equality than we’re actually making.

Sometimes, these figures are based on an examination of households, not people.  Here’s what happens: After a divorce, in most cases, the kids live between two homes.  But, often for school purposes, the kids have one legal address.  Due to stigmas, that address is the mom’s house the vast majority of the time.  Women often feel stigmatized if their home is not considered the kids’ official residence.

Then along come researchers looking at primary or sole breadwinners for families.  But they go by “homes with children.”  Since the moms’ homes are listed that way, they include those homes — while ignoring the dads altogether.  Meanwhile, those same dads are often working harder than ever to pay for their current home, often contributing to the mortgage on their previous home, paying child support, etc.

There’s also another source sometimes used for the figure.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census track the percentage of “wives who earn more than their husbands.”  These figures do not include unmarried couples, and they are not specific to parents.  As I explain in All In, women who make it to the C-Suite are less likely to have children than their male counterparts.  Many of those women likely earn more than their husbands and are included in this category.

Both the BLS and the Census show that each year since 2009, the figure has been either 28% or 29%, with no overall trend up or down.  When you include families in which the husbands have no earnings at all, it reaches 37% — again, with no trend up or down this decade.

The percentage of women who outearn their husbands spiked during the recession, in which men were adversely impacted even more than women.  There is some good news for gender equity in these figures though.  The fact that the numbers have not dropped to pre-recession levels, even as men have returned to work and unemployment dropped, suggests that the slow march toward equality in this respect is continuing.