Who's bringing home the bacon?

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The Independent Culture
An increasing number of women are earning more money than their partners. Meg Carter asks if the battered male ego can cope

Working women have never had it so good, a number of recent research studies show. Men do still enjoy a higher average income than women, but the gap is narrowing. For the most successful in lucrative careers in the City, finance or law, this traditional balance has already been upturned. Good news for successful women, then - but what about the partners who share their private lives?

Earning more than your partner has traditionally been a male affair. As more women pursued their own careers, however, it was inevitable that the conventional pattern of male breadwinner supporting female dependant would end. By 2020, around 20 per cent of fathers will be "house parents" while their partners assume the role of chief breadwinner, claims 2020 Vision, a report published by Barclays Life last month. Already, a growing number of young women are finding that they are earning not just the same as their other half, but more.

This financial power-shift is happening for a variety of reasons. For some couples, a decision is made to back the woman in her career - perhaps relocating to accommodate her promotion at the cost of his because her career offers better prospects. A small but growing number are reversing the traditional approach to childcare when they have babies, with the father rather than the mother staying at home.

Meanwhile, others are returning to full-time education to gain further qualifications while in their late twenties and thirties - a move that is likely to leave the partner still in paid employment supporting the other from anything from one to four years. Then there are those who simply find the female partner is better paid due to the nature of her job.

Whatever the reason, however, lack of pay parity can pose problems at home that need to be resolved. Money can prove a highly sensitive issue, even between two people who are particularly close. "Many men and women are still trying to work out exactly what it means to be in a couple in the Nineties," says Julia Cole, a counsellor with Relate. "Ten years ago, men seemed more openly threatened by their partner earning more. They may not say it so much today, but the feelings are still there. A particular common crunch point comes when a couple have kids and four or five years on she wants to return to work. Some men find the idea of part-time work or becoming a house husband particularly difficult to accept."

Adam, 34, works in venture capital, where he earns half as much as his girlfriend, Hannah, a communications consultant. "It's not a problem - it certainly doesn't make me feel emasculated not being the traditional breadwinner," he insists. However Hannah, 35, is not so sure. "The fact that I earn twice as much as him is fine in principle, but can cause friction in practice."

Going out to restaurants, or on holidays can cause pressure, she ruefully explains: "I want to go, so don't see a problem in paying for him if he thinks it's a little expensive. I'm lucky as I can afford to - just. Which is the point, as I often end up afterwards worrying about the money."

Sarah, 27, is a London-based arts administrator whose fiance Mark, 28, will shortly graduate from a three-year degree in graphic design. "Mark worked in various jobs before, but wanted to train for a particular area," she explains. "His decision [to go back to college] hasn't bothered me at all; he's my partner, I'll support him." Even so, she admits, there is sometimes "a niggle" at the back of her mind, not resentment, she claims, more "a funny feeling".

Frank, creative director of a small London advertising agency, knows what she means. Although he is working in an extremely lucrative industry, his partner, Michelle, earns twice as much running her own music business. "It's not a problem," he says. "But it can sometimes be an uncomfortable feeling being paid for."

With money comes power, Frank explains: "There is inevitably a fear you're not in charge of your own destiny if you are beholden to someone else, even if you know you shouldn't be so silly." Which, of course, is exactly the situation most women have found themselves in for generations. So are the roles now being reversed? Apparently not.

"There's a mix-up at the moment as rules everyone has long understood disappear and no consensus replaces them," Frank believes. "Women have been treated badly in the past and have had to fight for their fair share of what they saw as shared assets," he admits. "But I don't think things now swing the opposite way. For the time being at least, I doubt blokes would want to be seen to be demanding a `fair share' of what [women] earn."

Hannah believes having a joint bank account for shared expenses and household costs is an effective way of reducing possible problems. "We have a joint account for the house but keep our personal money separate - I'm not sure how I'd feel if I knew Adam was going out with his mates, buying clothes or CDs while I was paying for it all by working late," she says. "For the time being, our arrangement suits me fine, although my view might change if we were ever to marry."

However, Frank and Michelle - who have both been married before - are not convinced. "I had a joint bank account then and would never, never do it again," Michelle says. She earned more than her ex-husband and the pair shared a single account. "What happens is you put in more money, and when you have a row they go out and buy you an expensive present to make up, and you think, `Actually, I paid for that.'"

Money brings independence, which is not something Michelle would readily relinquish again, she says. Frank agrees: "I don't want anyone to have wholesale access to my assets and I wouldn't want wholesale access to theirs."

avoiding financial friction

If you feel uncomfortable about you and your partner's financial arrangements talk about it; the worst thing is to bury those feelings and not discuss the issues involved.

Try to understand your own and your partner's attitudes to money - some people are simply, by their nature, more miserly than others. If you are very careful with money, your fear of losing it could breed mistrust. Some people, in contrast, have a more spendthrift, "live for the day" approach and often spend more money if they are depressed.

Try setting up a joint bank account for shared household expenses - and agree at the beginning just what it will (and what it will not) be used for.

Analyse your spending habits. Trend predictors suggest that in coming years, many of us will choose to "downshift" both our working lives and consumer habits. This will place new emphasis on our time and what we do with it rather than money and how much we earn.

is the future female?

The traditional male-female pay gap is narrowing - slowly. Generally, women still earn only 75 to 80 per cent of their male counterparts' average weekly wage (up to 92 per cent among well-educated 16- to 24-year-olds), according to figures published by the Employment Policy Institute last autumn.

A woman with a degree earns an average of pounds 350 per week, while men with degrees take home a weekly average of pounds 530. But women's incomes are rising faster as the performance of girls in school continues to improve and as businesses place more emphasis on "softer" skills such as flexibility, efficiency, effective interpersonal communications and consensual management styles. According to a Henley Centre report published last year, around 80 per cent of new jobs created by the turn of the century will go to women.

Estimates now suggest that, in childless couples, women contribute an average of 44 per cent of the total household income (the average is 48 per cent for childless, graduate women in relationships) and the numbers contributing more than half are rising. Intriguingly, a MORI survey in 1995 revealed that 64 per cent of working women in Italy provide half or more of the household's income; in France, the figure was 72 per cent. By 2020, the typical UK household will have dramatically changed, according to the 2020 Vision report. The future household will be multi-generational - with grandparents, parents and their children under one roof. Most of us will be on part-time or short-term work contracts, and around 20 per cent of fathers will be "home parents", with their female partners assuming the role of main provider.