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Amid recession, an uptick in wives outearning their husbands

March 7, 2012 at 7:16 AM ET

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"Rosie the Riveter" dressed in overalls and bandanna was introduced as a symbol of patriotic womanhood in the 1940's. Rose Will Monroe played "Rosie the Riveter," the nation's poster girl for women joining the work force during World War II. Monroe was working as a riveter building B-29 and B-24 military airplanes at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Mich., when she was asked to star in a promotional film about the war effort. (AP Photo)

Since her husband was laid off last fall, Julee Schirmacher has found herself in a spot that has become familiar to many families over the past few years. She works full-time for a marketing company and, for now, her husband stays home and takes care of the couple’s two kids, ages 5 and 2.

“Money worries me constantly,” said Schirmacher, 29.

The number of women earning more than their husbands had gradually been rising for years, but the pace appeared to quicken during the Great Recession of 2007-09.

Nearly 38 percent of wives earned more than their husbands in 2009, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up about 3 percentage points from 2008.

As Schirmacher's case shows, in some cases women are earning more than their spouses not because the women are getting ahead, but because their husband has experienced a setback. Schirmacher's husband has been unable to find a job since getting laid off last September.

“Ideally, I would like us just to be working and in stable jobs,” Schirmacher said. “I don’t need to make a $100,000-a-year salary. I just want to be able to make money to be able to pay my bills on time, pay for the school for my kids. I just want to be able to have, like, nice Christmases with them. I want to be able (to say), on Friday when I get home from work, ‘Yeah, we can go to Friendly’s for dinner.’”

The BLS figures include families like Schirmacher's in which the husband may not be working at all. Looking more narrowly at families where both husband and wife are working, 28.9 percent of wives earned more than their husbands in 2009, up from 26.6 percent in 2008.

Mary Gatta, a senior scholar with the advocacy and research organization Wider Opportunities for Women, said it’s hard to say exactly what is behind the trend.

“The recession is a significant factor here in that during the recession we saw higher numbers of men lose their jobs,” Gatta said.

The official period of economic contraction, from December 2007 to June 2009, was so hard on men that some people dubbed it the “mancession” because so many men lost their jobs.

However, in the years of weak economic recovery that followed, women were harder hit while men started to gain jobs again. The trend appears to have started to even out in recent months.

Still, Gatta noted, that there are other, longer-term factors at work. For example, women have been graduating from college at higher rates than men for years. Workers with a college degree generally have higher earnings potential than those without one.

“It’s more than just the recession,” Gatta said.

In general, women’s earnings have become a much more intrinsic part of a family’s financial well-being over the past few decades, said Ellen Galinsky, co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. Her research from 2008 found that in dual-earning households, women were contributing about 45 percent of a family’s income on average.

Even in the families where wives make more than their husbands, she notes, many are struggling to get by – whether they have one or two salaries. In some cases women may be earning more their husbands because he lost a job or endured a pay cut.

“We have an image of (the wives) being the CEO of Xerox or something,” Galinsky said.

In fact, she said, many families in which both spouses work are in lower income brackets.

Galinsky expects that women’s earnings will continue to be key to many family’s financial survival.

“My view about the recession is that … it didn’t shift the course,” she said. “It accelerated the course we were already on.”

Schirmacher, who lives in Pottstown, Pa., always expected that both she and her husband would work.

She was actually the first to get laid off, in 2009. She ended up being out of work for more than two years, during which they had a second child and moved from Rhode Island to the Philadelphia area, where he got a better job.

In February 2011, she landed a job with a marketing company, and it seemed like the couple was getting back on financial track.

But then in September her husband lost his job as a property manager. That’s left him looking for a new job and taking care of the kids so they can save on child care costs.

Schirmacher said the situation is stressful for both of them. She recently took a promotion and has been working long hours, which means she doesn’t always get much time with the kids. Meanwhile, her husband is feeling the frustration of not being able to land a new job.

With just one income, the couple struggles to save money and worries about unexpected expenses. She recently had to borrow money from her parents for a major car repair.

“We can’t really catch a break,” she said. “We’re getting by but definitely not living the way that we were.”

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More women seeking MBAs, but pay gap persists 

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