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Women now take on the role of breadwinner


The notion of what it means to be a family's provider in the United States got a stark update yesterday with a new study showing that 55 percent of working women contribute half or more of their household's income.

Women have moved beyond the debate about whether they belong in the home or the workplace, according to the study, conducted by Louis Harris and Associates for the Families and Work Institute and the Whirlpool Foundation.

Rather, they see harmony between their roles as nurturers and providers and are looking not to shed responsibilities, but to better balance them.

Forty-eight percent of women in the survey said they would work even if money were not a concern. That is the same percentage as in 1981, the last time so comprehensive a study looked at women's views about work, family and society.

The new study, "Women: The New Providers," found that 26 percent of the working women surveyed said they provided about half of their family's income; 11 percent said they provided more than half and 18 percent said they were the household's sole earner. Two-thirds of the 1,502 women in the survey had jobs outside the home.

"This once again dispels the myth that women are providing supplemental income for the family," said Colleen Keast, executive director of the Whirlpool Foundation, a philanthropic organization.

The study brought into focus the significance of women's earnings by looking at women's contributions to all households, instead of just comparing women's and men's earnings in dual-income families, said Ellen Galinsky, co-president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research center in New York that focuses on policy issues relating to the changing workplace and family life.

Previous studies and government figures have shown that in two-earner households, women on average produce 41 percent of the family's income. In only 31 percent of dual-earner families do women earn more than men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, women earn less than men, averaging 73 cents for every dollar men make.

In the last two decades, however -- as more women have entered the work force and more marriages have ended in divorce -- fewer households have looked to a man as the sole provider; instead, more are dependent on either dual-earning couples or single women.

From 1974 to 1994, there was a 38 percent decline among married-couple families in the number of households in which the man was the sole earner and a 46 percent increase in two-earner households.

During that period, the number of households solely supported by a woman earner increased 114 percent, according to the bureau's figures.

Ms. Galinsky and Ms. Keast said the new study pointed to areas where political and employment policies, as well as philanthropic ventures, could be better focused to help women and families deal with the realities of contemporary life.

Women still see themselves as care-givers, but don't feel they are faced with an either-or choice between being good nurturers or good employees.

"Women see both these roles as emanating from caring for their families," said Ms. Galinsky, of the Families and Work Institute.

Women's greatest worries about the workplace "concern employers providing fewer benefits, and the difficulty of balancing work and family responsibilities," according to the study.

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