Women are earning more at work – but men still get pandered to at home

As women increasingly become the main breadwinners in many homes, the way family finances are managed is changing dramatically.

I've been talking to Suzanne Doyle Morris. A few years ago she wrote a book called Beyond the Boys' Club, which focused on showing women how to "break through the glass ceiling."

Now she's writing another, the subject of which rather suggests that, albeit often unwillingly, they have done just that. It's about female breadwinners and what happens to couples and families when the woman is the one bringing home the biggest income.

The book will be well-timed when it comes out. The male recession in the US has been pretty well documented. As the manufacturing and construction sectors fell by the wayside, men accounted for 71% of the resulting job losses. And even as the misery has spread into traditionally female areas, such as retail and education, women have fared better than men. Look at the numbers and you will see that the unemployment rate for men in the US is about 10% while that for women is more like 8%.

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And it isn't just in the US where women are starting to take over family finance. Even before the 'mancession' of the last few years,44% of women earned as much or more than their partners. In the 1960s that number was just 4% At the same time, ONS figures show that 214,000 men are house-husbands.

But what happens when the woman is the breadwinner? You can read a longer article about the stresses and strains in the US here. And if you want to see how the situation stresses out people who comment on Daily Mail articles you might want to read the comments at the bottom of this one. Clearly a lot of women aren't just having it all. They're doing it all too from the work bit to the housework bit and the childcare bit too.

But the problems that hit most couples tend, as ever, to be money related. Will there be a joint account? If so, how will it work? Who will manage the finances and pay the bills? How do you balance personal spending against family spending? Turns out the answer is very different when the woman is earning the money than when the man is earning the money.

I thought about this a good bit when I was writing my own book a few years ago and came up with what I thought was a fair way of dividing and spending income inside a partnership. It works like this: both partners keep a personal account, and their income whatever it is is paid into this. You use those accounts for personal expenditure. Then the couple add up their joint income and figure out how much they need in their joint account every month to cover bills and joint expenses. This is worked out as a percentage of the total and we contribute that percentage of our individual incomes to the pot. The key here is that it is a percentage not an absolute amount, so whoever earns more puts in more. But once the money is in the account it is considered to belong to both.

Then there is a complication. This system might still leave one partner with much less in their personal account than the other (particularly if the other is not earning at all). So the higher earner should then transfer a proportion of his/her surplus to the lower so everyone has the same-ish amount of spending money. It's a tiny bit complicated, but it is fair and it gives both partners equal spending power. That seems right to me.

But guess what? Once I started researching the systems people use in the real world, I found that no households in which the man was the main breadwinner used this one. Not one. Instead, the man kept his cash and doled it out as and when. But in households where the woman was the main breadwinner, everyone uses it. Why? The answer is always the same. "Because I don't want him to feel dependent on me." I'm not sure it is quite the ending the original feminists envisaged.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.