Hogan Lovells

Hogan Lovells

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Big Equal: The Coming of Age of the Feminine Mystique

By Randy Segal, partner, global mergers and acquisitions, technology and telecommunications

When I began my legal career in the 1980s, I did not plan my work-life balance or the roles to be played in my soon-to-be family. Analogous to a “thrust upon conflict” (some might say a tsunami), I found myself steeped in NYC legal practice, and the mother of four children (the last three of which were triplets).

Fortunately, my husband (a photographer) was able to take a practical look at the situation and say, “Okay, we follow your career,” and soon became my family’s CFO and COO and eventually the stay-at-home dad. While this has long become unremarkable to my family, I have had many (including a chairman of the board of a public company for which I was general counsel) tell me I was the first female executive he had ever met where this was the case.

Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy’s new book “The Richer Sex” argues that “the Big Flip” in gender roles “is just around the corner” and that “women, not men, will become the top earners in households,” transforming male-female relationships in all respects. While I think this is the overly-optimistic stuff of which books are made, I am quite intrigued by the prospect of the scales moving closer and closer to a “Big Equal.”

Mundy points to the dramatic rise in the percentage of working wives who out-earn their husbands, from 23.7 percent in 1987 to 37.7 percent in 2009, and attributes this trend to the rise in education for women. Mundy talks to the “Professional Flips” that have occurred, citing to Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin’s studies that women are seeking successful careers in areas that provide greater flexibility, conducive to a positive work-life balance.

Goldin and Lawrence Katz, in their paper “The Cost of Workplace Flexibility for High-Powered Professionals,” found that women have risen to 61 percent of veterinarians, 69 percent of psychologists and 57 percent of medical scientists, making some of the largest gains in the “smaller high-end professions.” Pew Research Center studies have shown a significant increase in the percentage of younger women married to men with less education and less income, moving over the course of 1970 to 2007 from 20 to 28 percent and 4 to 22 percent, respectively.

And even closer to home, studies have indicated that the numbers of stay-at-home dads has also doubled since the 1970s, from approximately 1.7 percent of married fathers to 3.3 percent. These numbers reflect not only a permanent upward blip in the percentage of stay-at-home fathers following economic recessions but also the acceptance by younger generations of role reversals when faced with the economic realities of differential earning capacity and/or sociological shifts in flexibility as to gender roles.

Years ago Betty Friedan told us in “The Feminine Mystique” that women would be better as women (including as wives and mothers) when their security and sense of self-worth no longer hinged on their husband’s paycheck and occupation. Mundy’s new book provides significant reason to be optimistic that we are moving in the right direction.

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