More Women Are Breadwinners? It's Complicated

Woman doing bills
Todd Warnock | Lifesize | Getty Images
Woman doing bills

The headlines coming out of Prudential Financial’s most recent study of women and money are tinged with feminine pride: “More Than Half of American Women Are Breadwinners,” crowed a typical article last week.

But behind the triumphant banners was the news that women’s relationships with their finances remain troubled in some familiar ways.

The study’s news nugget — that 53 percent of women were the financial anchor in their households — has a nice ring to it, and tracks with other evidence that women are slowly coming into their own in the world of paid work.

Pru’s researchers say, however, that women had become the primary income producers by default: Many of the women surveyed were single, and among those married or living with someone, only 22 percent were the breadwinner. Thirty percent were the top earner, the data suggest, because their husband or partner had lost a job.

And, possibly because of the disparity in pay between men and women, having a woman as the breadwinner isn’t always good news for the family. Thirty percent also said they were having trouble keeping up with the bills. (The survey reported that average annual income for men was 11 percent higher than women’s.)

Despite what you’ve heard about a “man-cession,” slightly more women in the survey were adversely affected by the recent downturn, while more men reported “some improvement in their household condition” since.

The more one reads of the study, the more its findings appear to reflect not changes in women’s fortunes, but in Prudential’s data collection. In its six previous studies done since 2000, Prudential has gathered responses only from women making $50,000 a year or more. This time, researchers enlarged the sample (to 1,400 women and 600 men) and expanded the income range. They found, not surprisingly, that as they went down the pay scale, money matters got grittier.

Most at odds with the picture of a self-sufficient, skirt-suited professional woman that accompanied media reports was the finding that, where a man is there to take control of finances, he by and large does.

This seems to be directly related to women's confidence in dealing with money. Forty percent of the men in the study agreed with the statement “I enjoy the sport of investing.” Only 22 percent of women saw themselves in that notion. More women consider themselves better savers than investors, and they hesitate to take financial risks.

Women's conservative approach to investing is perhaps the bleakest news of the entire survey, since, if women are ever going to live up to the picture summoned by those headlines, they will do so by winning bets as entrepreneurs or investors.

The answer seems to be better financial education, especially for those women who have the least margin for error. Programs do exist to teach investing skills to women, but, as a recent New York Times story pointed out, they most often find their way to the daughters of the financial elite.

Perhaps now that Prudential is asking lower-income women questions about their finances, it won't be long before they are getting answers.