Women Now Top Earners in Record Number Of Homes, But Many Americans Think This Is Bad For Society

Working mothers are the sole or primary source of income for their families in 40% of households with children, according to a new analysis of census data. This record number shows a movement towards gender equality in the workplace for certain women in America, mostly white, educated women. It additionally reveals a strong gender bias regarding child rearing: Three out of four adults surveyed said working mothers made it harder to raise children. 

There are two disparate groups that comprise the breadwinner mothers. While 37% (5.1 million) are married women who out-earn their spouses, the majority of these women (8.6 million) are single mothers, according to the Pew Research Center. Married mothers who out-earn their husbands are older and disproportionally white and college-educated. In contrast, single mothers are younger, more likely to be black or Hispanic, and less likely to have a college degree.  

The public attitude towards mothers who work reveals a shocking double standard: Only 21% of those polled said working mothers within two-parent households are “good for society.” Yet Pew also reported that roughly 79% of Americans reject the idea that women should return to traditional roles. 

“The public is still working through a lot of this stuff,” said Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew Social and Demographic Trends project, referencing the contrast between those who recognize the economic benefits of a working mother but also consider her “bad for society.” 

To achieve gender equality in the workforce there must first be equality within the home. Men must be seen as equally capable parents and caregivers so that women do not need to choose between working and mothering. Yet as indicated in the charts below, 51% of Americans said that children are better off when the mother stays home, while only 8% said the same about a father. Furthermore, while 67% of Americans said women working for pay outside the home made it easier for the families to live comfortably, working women were also blamed for making marriages harder to be successful (50%) and harder for parents to raise children (74%). 

  

Andrew Cherlin, a sociology and public policy professor at Johns Hopkins University, said he was surprised by how little the public attitude toward working mothers had developed. "Many of our workplaces and schools still follow a male-breadwinner model, assuming that the wives are at home to take care of child care needs," said Cherlin. "Until we realize that the breadwinner-homemaker marriage will never again be the norm, we won't provide working parents with the support they need." As a society we need to develop our attitudes to meet social trends, including putting a greater emphasis on male caregivers, and demand family-friendly work policies such as paid family leave and child care, as well as food stamps and other support programs for single mothers.  

This poll is important for women. It shows that female participation in the workforce is not only growing, but that women are reaching high-earning positions of power. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed said it is not bad for a marriage if a wife out-earns a husband, up 23% from 1997. Yet, we must still consider the greater implications of public opinion towards working mothers, and the way that single mothers and women of color disproportionately are affected.