More Wives Head for Work

Angela Patterson is working as an insurance agent in New York while her husband looks for construction jobs in North Carolina. Diana Gomez had been staying home to care for an ill daughter. When her husband lost his job, she became an administrative assistant in a dentist's office. Michelle, a social worker and mother of three young children in Baltimore, who asked that her last name not be used, switched from part-time to full-time work when her husband was laid off last year. She kept to that schedule after he found work earlier this year—at two-thirds his former salary.

They are the reluctant breadwinners: Women who wanted to stay home until their income suddenly became critical to the well-being of their families. In some cases they are increasing their hours to keep the bills paid. Others are taking up employment for the first time as their husbands struggle to find work. With the anemic recovery keeping the job outlook uncertain, the accelerated gender shift is likely to stick, creating new challenges for U.S. families.

In a study published this September in the journal Family Relations, researchers Marybeth J. Mattingly and Kristin E. Smith of the University of New Hampshire found that wives were more likely to enter the job market or increase their hours when their husbands were out of work between May 2007 and May 2008 than when their husbands were out of work amid prosperity four years earlier. These women were also three times more likely to enter the labor force than women whose husbands were working and 51 percent more likely to increase their hours. Smith says difficult times may push women to take jobs they wouldn't consider when the economy is strong. "They have to work," she says. "As families lose their primary breadwinner, they're making ends meet with a lower-earning spouse."

By now, the impact of the recession on the American male is well chronicled: Men accounted for more than 71 percent of the job losses as sectors like manufacturing and construction were crushed. Even when job losses spread to traditionally female-friendly areas like retail and education, women continued to fare better. The latest unemployment figures stand at 9.8 percent for men 20 or over and 8 percent for their female counterparts, with women making up 47 percent of the total labor force.

The recession has accelerated a trend that first became apparent years ago—wives entering the workforce to boost family earnings. The difference now is that what might have been viewed as optional income has become critical. As Manpower (MAN) Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey A. Joerres points out, "the reality is that Joe is not finding a job anytime soon."

That disadvantage notwithstanding, men continue to be paid more. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports women's median weekly earnings were 83 percent of men's in the second quarter of 2010, up from 76 percent a decade ago. While that's the narrowest gap on record, it's hardly cause for celebration at a time when women earn 60 percent of all bachelor's and master's degrees. The gap also reflects the reality that many of the sectors that attract women tend to pay less than the sectors traditionally dominated by men. Mary Kay Henry, president of the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union, argues that "service work is not yet valued in a way that can allow people to support a family." For SEIU, of course, that's an argument for more unionized workers.

The effect of this gender shift in the job market isn't simply economic. Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, has produced studies that show men now struggle to balance family and career more than women do—45 percent of men report such problems, vs. 39 percent of women. "Work isn't working very well for men," says Galinsky.

Angela Patterson, 44, knows the struggles all too well. When the single mother of two adult daughters met her husband three years ago, she was hoping to find economic security. Instead, he lost his job as a contractor, and Patterson ended up moving from North Carolina to New York to enroll at the Grace Institute, a nonprofit that prepares women for the workforce. The training helped her become an agent for New York Life. She's living with her daughter in New York since her husband doesn't want to come North. "Women are born and bred to be adaptable," she says. "When you have kids and bills to pay, you make sacrifices."

Few experts expect the women who were pushed by recession into the labor market to leave as the economy picks up. Eroded housing values, diminished retirement accounts, and the prospect of higher taxes and anemic wage growth for themselves and their husbands provide these reluctant workers powerful incentives to stay at their jobs.

Diana Gomez, for one, isn't giving up her job in the dentist's office, even though her husband was recalled to his job in a sheet metal factory four months ago. The double income they have now is enough to restore a minimal sense of security. "We can function as a whole family now," says Gomez, who has two children. "We're able to pay the bills. The pressure's not all on me."

The bottom line: With lackluster job growth and diminished family savings, the increase in female breadwinners isn't likely to reverse.

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