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She Earns More Than I Do March 11, 2009

Posted by Andreas in Life, Society, South Africa, Work.

I wrote this for Best Life some time ago.

She Earns More Than I Do

So when are you going to get a Real Job?”

For nearly ten years that was my mother’s staple conversation starter during our regular trans-national telephone conversations. For the most part, of course, she had her tongue firmly lolly-popped in her cheek when she used that phrase, but as is so often the case with these sorts of things, she was also expressing a real concern. Usually I’d simply ignore the question and segue seamlessly into some inane comment about the weather in the Cape or the lamentable state of international maritime jurisprudence.

I suspect that her gentle but insistent bimonthly prodding had a number of underlying causes. One was certainly that my university job hadn’t exactly catapulted me into the upper echelons of salary brackets generally thought to be appropriate for my sort – the married and massively over-educated suburban father of two. Of course it was much preferable to the prospect of eternal studenthood – by all accounts my chosen career path during the preceding decade.

Perhaps it’s instinctive for mothers to want their son’s aspirations to set them on a more corporate, better paid and, well, more “normal” employment trajectory than the one I had chosen. Before I paint too unsympathetic a picture of my mom, however, let me say that both of my parents, having themselves had very little say in their own career choices, have always been extremely accepting of mine. It was always pretty clear that the most important reason for my mother’s disparaging outlook regarding my job, however, was not that it paid so little, but that it paid less than my wife Sam’s.

Sam has always earned more than me. Even before we met she pulled down more pocket money selling “Cosmic Chess” in Jo’burg shopping malls dressed as the alluring Captain Cassandra – you should see the pictures – than my teenage self ever dreamt off making from mowing what seemed like several rugby pitches worth of lawn once a week.

When Sam got her first Real Job doing her articles at a law firm and then working as a junior attorney, while I was still studying, she obviously trumped my meagre bursary by several orders of magnitude. Even when she bravely embarked on an entirely new career as a freelance writer after she fell pregnant with our first child and I had already started my illustrious run as a Scientific Officer at UCT’s Department of Geological Sciences, she made more every month than I did.

I put the disparity in earning power between myself and my fabulously talented wife down to a combination of drive, practical-mindedness and sheer willpower – a lack thereof on my part, or a sufficiently chunky helping on hers, whichever way you prefer to look at it. The thing is that while I don’t think that I can be accused of being too stupid, unconscientious or lazy to make it in the land of the Real Job, I just seem to have been dealt somewhat short when it comes to the career-ambition and making-wads-of-money genes.

And you know what? I’m quite comfortable with that.

My mom, on the other hand, thinks my attitude isn’t entirely appropriate. And to a degree I understand where she’s coming from. For her and for millions of others around the world it’s the primary role of the male head of the nuclear family to raise the finances to feed, cloth, house and educate his wife and children. While it has become acceptable for wives to pursue professional careers outside of the home in recent times, it is still seen as rather unsavoury for her to outcompete her husband in the salary department.

The logic behind all of this has, of course, been on very shaky ground ever since the industrial revolution reduced husbands to wage slaves and wives to unpaid housekeepers. The fact that the traditional housewife’s contribution to the nuclear family and by inference the entire economy – the cleaning, cooking, washing, childcare and pampering to her worker-husband’s fragile body and ego – has never been acknowledged, certainly not in financial terms, has been a rallying cry for women’s rights campaigners since the first wave of feminism.

In the USA, Salary.com, “a provider of on-demand compensation management solutions” has estimated on the basis of a nationwide survey that if the services rendered by stay-at-home moms were to have been compensated in monetary terms, they would have earned an average of $138 095 in 2007. What I’m trying to get at here in a somewhat tangential fashion is that more wives than many of us might think are worth more than their husbands – in financial terms – whether they have a salaried job or not.

But even if you think that the argument that women should be paid for traditional “housework” is bogus, statistics from around the world show that there has been a steady increase in the number of families in which the wife earns more than her husband. Figures compiled by the US Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which are comparable to those from Canada, show that between one third and one quarter of all American women in two-income marriages now bring home bigger paycheques than their partners. In the UK, the number of men earning less than their partners doubled from 2002 to 2007 and today more than 40 percent of British women in fulltime employment make more than their spouses.

In South Africa, the situation is even more startling. According to Women24.com’s 2008 Female Nation Survey, which is statistically representative of three million urban South African women over the age of 20 and earning more than R2500 per month, a staggering 56 percent of all fulltime employed South African women are their family’s main breadwinner. Perhaps even more surprising, 45 percent of all new mothers in this country fall into this category. And all this, while women, even in developed countries, still earn substantially less for equivalent jobs than their male colleagues.

So there you have it, Mom. I’m not the only bloke who earns less than his wife. In fact it’s becoming quite trendy and it turns out, I’m in pretty illustrious company, Prince Philip excluded. John Kerry, who was defeated by George W. Bush in the 2004 US presidential elections, is worth a pittance compared to his ketchup-heiress wife Teresa Simões-Ferreira Heinz. Cindy McCain, who chairs one of the largest beer distributers in the US, rakes in substantially more than her husband and current Republican Party presidential hopeful, John. And then of course there is Neil Murray, an independently well-to-do anaesthetist from England, who just happens to be married to J.K. Rowling, the world’s first ever dollar-billionaire author.

The pessimists among you will say that all of this bodes very poorly for the world’s male fraternity and more specifically for that most mythical of its attributes – masculinity. Personally I’ve always found masculinity very hard to define beyond the obvious biological bits. I’ve especially struggled to equate it with financial prowess, but then that might be yet another gene I’m just a bit under-endowed in. Is there a joke that starts “You know what they say about men with large paycheques?” that no one’s bothered to tell me?

I guess the argument goes something like this: only men who earn enough money, and certainly more money than their female partners, are manly enough to also earn the respect of their wives, kids, society and, ehrm, their mothers. Now while I can perhaps be persuaded to see the validity of this logic in the context of pre-historic times when the tall, built bloke who on average managed to club down more Woolly Mammoths and Sabre Tooth Tigers and literally brought home more bacon topped the rankings in the popularity sweepstakes, we’ve surely come a long way since then.

As far as I’m concerned the rigidly nuclear family in which the man made most of the money all of the time and did nothing much else, has outlived its usefulness – if indeed it ever had any. Similarly outdated concepts include the strict division of labour along male and female and professional and domestic lines, as well as the traditional inflexibility with regards to the timing, content and setting of one’s “career”.

And I don’t mean these things in a negative way. Far from it: I’m hoping for what I think would be a positive evolution of gender roles in society. Imagine families in which both partners value each other equally, irrespective of who delivers the most hard cash at the end of the month. Genuinely cooperative and supportive families in which both partners pull their weight, yet have the freedom and flexibility to explore paid and unpaid work options. Of course I’ve felt guilty about earning less than Sam, but after speaking to her about it we found that I could compensate by taking on a larger share of household and parenting responsibilities.

As the statistics on primary breadwinners suggest, women have taken the lead here and men need to pull up their sock to keep up, both in terms of salaried work and unpaid household work. As a BettyConfidential.com survey in the US showed earlier this year, most wives who are their family’s main breadwinners are simultaneously proud of themselves and resentful of their husbands who tend not to share their load at home. Women have successfully entered the corporate world. It’s about time for men to enter the domestic one with equal enthusiasm.

About eight months ago I finally had a non-evasive answer to my mother’s perennial question. She wanted the “good” news first: “I have finally quit my old job”. The “bad” news (she’s actually grown to like it since): “My new Real Job, for now, is going to be that of a work-from-home primary parent and secondary breadwinner.”



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