The Women@Work column appears weekly in The Globe and Mail.
It’s a question we need to start asking more often since buried in this conversation about women’s advancement in the workplace, where we fanatically count the number of women on boards, lives this trend of women increasingly out earning and out educating men.
It comes across in anecdotal evidence – not a week goes by where I don’t encounter a woman who earns more than her spouse or partner — and hard data backs it up. The number of breadwinning wives has grown steadily in Canada over the decades, hitting 29 percent in 2003 according to Statistics Canada. That number rises considerably if you account for single and divorced women. The majority of U.S. women surveyed in a recent Prudential Research Study acknowledged being the primary breadwinner.
If we stand on the verge of a workplace evolution, its impact needs to reverberate in more than just the home. As women increasingly out earn men, and — if the trend continues — outnumber them in the workforce, we must spearhead this evolution so that our perception as employees and as business clients follows suit.
Forget the dialogue of “woe-is-me” workplace feminism. If women want it all, and we earn more money, we must collectively assume our new role as the “richer sex” with more authority for the business world to acknowledge the trend. The first step in this direction must be to publicize our status as financial providers.
“We are still living with the vestiges of a work world where men were viewed as the de facto household breadwinners, and paid accordingly,” observed Liza Mundy, who meticulously illustrated this economic changing of the guard in her book, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love and Family.
“Women in the workplace should speak up and make it clear to management that they are indeed household breadwinners, and families depend on their wages,” asserted Ms. Mundy. “This is not pin money and it’s not supplemental money. We need to make that clear,” she added.
Although pay equity stubbornly persists, Ms. Mundy worries that a bigger issue rests on the compensation tied to traditionally pink industries and divisions, such as marketing. Since these roles on average pay less than those in male-dominated work environments, female breadwinners risk supporting their family on less money.
“I think the important achievement would be for industry and corporations to rethink salary levels in different fields. Why should marketing people make less than engineers, in the same company?” she asked. In addition to re-examining pay, institutions must reassess how they approach female decision makers on their finances.
“We have known for some time that Canadian women make the majority of the financial decisions in the household,” said Barbara Stewart, a portfolio manager with Cumberland Private Wealth Management Inc in Toronto and the author of the paper Rich Thinking: A Guide to Building Financial Confidence in Girls and Women.
She thinks this trend will only increase as more women reach breadwinner status. In dealing with female executives, Ms. Stewart finds they often insist on quick coffee meetings for a portfolio review. “I am pressured to talk as quickly as I can,” she said of these meetings and expects time to become an increasingly precious commodity for these women.
“Banks and financial firms may have to adapt their marketing style and make their ads tighter and more directly focused when it comes to their messages to female decision-makers,” suggested Ms. Stewart. Others in the financial industry are quickly learning to get on board and target this growing demographic.
Bev Moir, Senior Wealth Advisor for ScotiaMcLeod, says she and her colleagues have already begun to support women’s specific needs through a series of seminars. In addition to appealing to just breadwinners, Ms. Moir cites statistics that show most women will be responsible for their own finances since they will either never marry, will divorce of be predeceased by their spouse.
“Given the fact that many women will be entering their senior years without a partner, increased personal earning and wealth should present the opportunity for women to enjoy greater independence and security both now and later in life,” stated Ms. Moir. At the same time, she notes this wealth includes additional liabilities and observes more women paying spousal support in the case of divorce.
Although some examples highlighting this shift toward embracing women’s status as breadwinners is beginning to surface, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. As the richer sex, we need to ensure that more companies find ways to adapt. Otherwise, we may take our academic achievements and growing wallets to a more female-friendly environment.