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  • Katica Roy

Just for Purses and Shoes: The Myth of the Secondary Income

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

There’s an assumption about mom’s income.

It proposes that her earnings do not go toward necessities such as food and shelter, but rather for discretionary items such as purses and shoes. This assumption—referred to as the myth of the secondary income—is false, and I had the unfortunate experience of confronting it directly while pregnant with my first child.

It’s time we cut through all the assumptions, misconceptions, and myths about a woman’s income and get to the facts. The facts bust the myth of the secondary income as well as reveal how the myth hurts businesses, economies, and our society.

Busted: The Myth of the Secondary Income

People often asked me if I intended to stay home after my son was born. It was my first pregnancy and the question caught me off guard. I didn’t have a choice whether or not I was going to stay home with him. Even if I wanted to, it was not economically feasible for me to do so because I was the primary breadwinner of my family. Besides, we depended on my job for health insurance.

After my son was born, I received a promotion and soon became the sole breadwinner of my family. Like 71 percent of children of families with working moms, my income was not for purses, shoes, or anything else discretionary. It was for housing, food, health insurance, clothing, child care, retirement savings (and the list goes on). And while 71 percent of families in the U.S. rely on mom’s earnings for their economic well-being, 34 percent of those 71 percent depend solely on mom’s earnings for their economic well-being. In the average household with a mother working outside the home, we can expect that 40 percent of the family’s total wages come from her.

To believe that women’s incomes are secondary to men’s is to neglect the truth.

The True Value of Women’s Work

Nevermind that women’s income is imperative to the success of American families, it’s also critically important for economic growth.

Women’s increased participation in the paid labor force has been a major driver of economic growth in recent decades. Roughly 50 years ago, only 44 percent of prime working-age women (ages 25 to 54) were in the labor force, and women held fewer than one in three jobs. Today, about 75 percent of prime working-age women are in the labor force, and women hold almost 49 percent of all jobs.

The contributions these women have made to the U.S. economy have undoubtedly increased over the last half-century. According to the Council of Economic Advisers, the U.S. economy is $2 trillion bigger today than it would have been if women had not increased their participation and hours since 1970.

We have room to grow. There’s another $2 trillion on the table if we close the gender equity gap. Ending the myth of secondary income is important to that additional GDP growth.

How the Myth Impacts Your Business

It’s 2019 and employees continue to experience inequitable treatment in the workplace. Working women and their families pay the price. We know this because we have data to prove it.

Working moms earn 71 cents on the dollar compared to their male peers. That’s 9 cents less than women overall. Women also face a 4 percent earning drop in hourly wages per child.

It’s not just working women and their families who suffer. Businesses also pay the price of inequity when they choose to believe the myth of the secondary income. First, from a financial perspective, companies that leave women behind are losing money. Second, from a labor economics perspective, companies that leave women behind are losing valuable and scarce talent.

A recent Randstad survey found that 80 percent of women would leave a company for one that offered better gender equality. For 58 percent of women, the lack of a clear path to leadership is one of the key factors that contribute to gender inequality in the workplace. And at a time when the U.S. has 1 million more job openings than unemployed workers, gender equity is now a strategic imperative rather than a nice-to-have competitive advantage.

Women’s earnings have a direct impact on our future labor force and the growth of the U.S. economy. Let’s stop believing the myth of the secondary income and start accepting the facts. Women are in the workforce and we’re here to stay.


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