The New Gender Economics

Men are starting to think it’s sexy for women to outearn them. How this seemingly small change may rewrite the rules of marriage

By Lindsy Van Gelder
woman carries man wedding image
Photograph: Illustrated by Gérard DuBois

Experts note there’s a new breed of men who not only aren’t threatened by a woman’s larger paycheck but are grateful for it. This attitude is not universal, especially among older white men who have no positive model for it, says Michael Kimmel, distinguished professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. But an increasing number of men are happy being outearned, he says—not only because gender roles are changing but also because of our sluggish economy: Three quarters of those who lost their jobs in 2008 and 2009 were men. “This is not your grandfather’s Depression, because men aren’t the sole providers,” notes Kimmel, whose specialty is the study of masculinity. “So men’s losing their jobs hasn’t been the calamity for the family that it was in 1931.”


Still, when a husband’s earning power collapses in midmarriage, adjusting can be tough. Michele Wells, 55, a marketing and public relations consultant from Boulder, Colorado, met her 66-year-old husband back in the early ’80s. He was a high-tech industry analyst, she says, “a highflier who was always being quoted in BusinessWeek.” He earned more than Wells and had gone to Harvard and Princeton, which dazzled her.

As he neared 60, however, Wells’s husband lost his enthusiasm for working full time and devoted himself instead to managing the couple’s investments. That was OK with her—until the market went belly-up in 2008. To preserve their precrash standard of living, she wanted him to get a job. He balked, suggesting they should just live more cheaply. So Wells had to consider her priorities. She stuck with him—and not just because his clever investing helped them recoup much of what they’d lost. “Love doesn’t conquer all, but it helps immensely,” she says. “I enjoy his company. He’s a thinker and a reader, he’s still handsome, and the sex is still great. Would I be better off divorcing? When I think about the women I know and the things they’ve been through with men, the answer is no.”


Experts see this as a period of transition. “The general data indicate that gender norms are changing but that there’s also still some ambivalence,” observes D’Vera Cohn, senior writer at the Pew Research Center, which recently released several reports on gender and money. For example, she says, 67 percent of men and women polled in a 2010 national survey said a man needed to be prepared to support a family before he married—but only 33 percent felt that women had the same responsibility. And yet the change in attitudes has been huge. In the late 1970s, Cohn says, 48 percent of American men and women believed that the most satisfying marriage was one in which both partners worked and shared chores and parenting; by 2010 that figure had jumped to 62 percent.


Originally published in the March 2012 issue

Share Your Thoughts!


Barry 07.26.2012

Apologies in advance for the length of this, but I feel very strongly about it. As a dating mentor I can't agree with the conclusions they're pushing in this article. Yes, men find it increasingly "sexy", but male attraction and male long-term mating are not the same thing. The things that create initial sexual intrigue are rarely the same things that sustain long-term partnerships and marriages.
More powerful, successful women are definitely on the rise, and men are trying to adjust to catch up in our attitudes. The truth is, what we "say" we are okay with for a survey and how well that works out in a relationships are often two different things.
I had a client recently who is a high-level contract negotiator and earns high-six figures. She began a relationship with a man who brings joy, laughter, light and commitment into her life, but is a ski instructor. At first both were okay with this balance, but within a year she had grown weary of feeling responsible for carrying the load while he didn't. There were a few lessons for her in the relationship that I think are valuable for both genders:
1) Most women I work with, and know, are happy knowing they *could* fully support the family, but prefer feeling like they are choosing to work, not that they *have* to work or the family wouldn't survive. They prefer knowing the man *can* pay the bills.
2) Many of the men who are happy to settle into being supported are good men, with their own vision, but many many more find themselves unhappy as they drift a bit, feeling purposeless. When a man has a purpose, even if it's becoming an olympic skier, things go better. He MUST be living to his highest potential in some OTHER area of his life, if not his income and career.
3) That brings us to #3… This is more about he guy's self-identity than anything. Most men, deep down, feel they "should" be able to provide for the family. When they don't/can;t they often feel lesser than. Even with a voluntary agreement by the guy that 'It's okay', quite often I see a slow passive aggressive resentment build. He's upset at himself for not stepping up, according to his own belief and identity. It can end up in him withdrawing affection, or other passive aggressive behavior towards her. We can;t always swallow the pill we believe we can.
4) The key is finding a man whose HIGHEST sense of purpose on this earth is being fulfilled. If he most strongly identifies with a calling to paint or write, and does so at his highest capability, he can feel manly and fulfilled. His identity and self-esteem must come primarily from something other than earning and providing. These men are fewer and further between.
The truth is, Ali (and ladies) *I* thought I was a pretty enlightened guy and I fell into this trap myself. Anna, my wife, is a powerful, fantastic woman. I grew up believing in empowering women in every way possible. Y'all can do anything, and many things better than men can! So when we moved to Los Angeles and struggled at first, I was fine with Anna being able to support us for awhile since her job was more easily transferable. I believed there was no reason a woman couldn't support a guy while he worked towards his dream. After a couple of years, however,, and this is hard to admit, but there was simply less spark in our sexual chemistry. It was hard to feel like a powerful man while she was supporting me. I was shocked when I realized this as it's the LAST attitude I'd expect myself to have. I am the FARTHEST thing from a 'typical guy' of any guy I know. We talked about it and Anna and I agreed that she didn't want to feel responsible for carrying us. It would be nice to get a break, and for me to take a turn. Well, I stepped up. And since then things have improved a thousandfold between us. I still believe it's great when women accomplish even more than their partner, but I also know what it can do to any man who isn't 'stepping his game up'.
That doesn;t mean you can't have it all, though, ladies. I still believe you CAN. The key is that your man be TRULY striving to reach his full potential in the dream or identity that means the most for him. If he is giving that up, then it better be temporary, like taking a couple years to raise the kids so you can get ahead, then him getting a turn too. Or, find that rarest man, whose self-identity is entirely about being the support person to your ambition. But tread carefully, because you don't want to date someone you think is a man, and find out later he's just a boy and willing to live below his own standards for himself. That's why I'm teaching women to stop dating boys and start dating men (
Feminism was the best thing to happen for women, but we, as men have been struggling to find our role in this new dynamic. We initially swung too far the other way on the pendulum to compensate. Somewhere between the puppy dog "Yes ma'am" man, and the cave man chauvinist lies the man who knows who he is, works for his dream, and supports his strong, strident, stunning woman. Somewhere out there, is the right man for you

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