'The New Providers'

Even with a biology degree from MIT, the last thing Cheryl Jones wanted was to be the family breadwinner. Unlike many baby boomers, driven to prove they could juggle a full-time career and motherhood, Jones, 37, made relationships her priority. She got married the day before graduation 15 years ago. And while her husband, Bobby, built his contracting business, she headed into software engineering, fully expecting, she says, that "my income would be secondary to his." At first, it was. Cheryl worked part time, taking off a few months when each of their first three children was born. Her income paid for day care, for "extras." But five years ago the couple got caught in the New England recession: Bobby's business went bust, Cheryl was laid off. When she found work, she had no choice but to go back full time. Now, as Bobby struggles to launch a financial-planning business out of their Medfield, Mass., home, he brings in less than $10,000 a year. And the family-five children, ages 11, 9, 7, 5 and 3--counts on every cent of Cheryl's $60,000-a-year paycheck. "My kids eat," she says, "because I go to work."

In their backyard, Cheryl and Bobby Jones play with their five kids

It's no secret that American women work because they have to. Over the last decade, studies have repeatedly shown that, without two incomes, many families wouldn't make it from one mortgage payment to the next. These days, working for ego gratification alone seems as outmoded as Gloria Steinem's aviator glasses. Last week a new report offered the most striking evidence yet that women are not just contributing to their families, they're fast approaching economic parity with their mates. In 45 percent of dual-earner households, women earn about half or more of the income, according to "Women: The New Providers," a study released last week by the Families and Work Institute, a New York nonprofit research group. Factor in the growing number of separated and divorced women and single-parent households and the numbers are even more dramatic: 55 percent of all working women make about half or more of the household income.

As with men, most women are not getting rich at their jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the vast majority of working women still make less than $25,000 a year. Jobs in the growing service sector have gone mostly to women. And that--coupled with the facts that more women are entering the job market with college educations and more are refusing to drop out to rear children- has helped narrow the gap between men's and women's wages. In 1965, women earned 59.9 cents for every dollar men earned; by 1990, the gap had shrunk to 71.6 cents. Among young, educated workers, the gulf is close to disappearing, according to an analysis by economist June Ellenoff O'Neill, director of the Congressional Budget Office. Among those at the age of 27 to 33 who've never had a child, women's earnings are close to 98 percent of men's.

There was a time when such dramatic numbers might have shriveled a generation of American men. Now many seem grateful, even relieved. "Blue-collar men used to think it reflected badly on them if their wife was working," says Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin. "But with their incomes dropping and housing prices going up, they are much more accepting of the fact that their wife is contributing a large share of the family income."

Even as women made gains in the workplace, their work at home hasn't diminished. In a 1995 study of income and housework, University of Washington sociologist Julie Brines found that wives do the overwhelming amount of chores no matter what percentage of the income they bring home. Women's work is greatest, not surprisingly, in traditional families, and it decreases as their incomes increase. Yet when women's earnings skyrocket past their mates', Brines found. men retreat to their La-Z-Boys.

"It's not a zero-sum game," says Dana Friedman, copresident of the Families and Work Institute. "Being more committed to work does not mean you are less committed to family." In the "New Providers" survey, conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, women overwhelmingly defined success in terms of family. Many sound like Jones, who is as serious about getting up early to make Rice Krispies treats with her son before school as she is about her breadwinner status. "My house is a zoo," she says. "But it's worth the trade-off."

The new household order can strain a marriage, sometimes to the breaking point. Gail Duncan-Campagne is the president of the Ford dealership her father started in Sterling Heights, Mich., with annual sales of $118 million. Her husband, Paul, works in his family's business, too-a jewelry shop with revenues of about $175,000 a year. Though the couple won't discuss salaries, the obvious disparity has been a wedge in their 10-year marriage; they separated two months ago. Gail, 44, sounds as frustrated with Paul's failure to build his business as she is with what she describes as his reluctance to run the house. She ticks off how she's paid bills, bought stock, booked vacations, hired cleaning women, all the while working 80 hours a week to his 40. "He was not the house manager. The place would have to be a certain standard. Please, I didn't want to come in and do two to three hours of cleanup." Paul, 39, insists his ego never got in the way, but he concedes he should have taken on more work around the house, if only to have felt like an equal partner. "It's hard to surprise your wife with something when she's the breadwinner. How do you say, 'Honey, I need $3,500 to take the family on a ski trip'?"

In the land of the two-earner family, mutual respect is more important than mutual funds. Seattle oceanographer Tom Mueller and his wife, Heidi Stamm, a highway consultant, think they divide things pretty fairly, though they doubt it's because her $70,000-a-year salary is 820,000 more than his. "It's a teamwork approach," says Mueller, 46. Mostly, though, they agree that housework is simply incidental to their real goal --to save enough money to retire early. "That's the carrot in front of us." says Stature, 39. "The more we make, the quicker we both get there."

Tug of war: Now that women are closing in on a financial partnership with men, does it feel like nirvana? Well, not exactly. Although 79 percent of women in a study last year by the Labor Department's Women's Bureau said they "love" or "like" their jobs, many would be just as happy not to have to work so hard. Just 15 percent of those in the "New Providers" survey said they would work full time if they had enough money to live comfortably. Instead, 33 percent would work part time, 31 percent would care for their families and 20 percent would do volunteer work. Like many women, Lisa Hutchins, a Los Angeles real-estate agent, feels pulled by the inevitable tug of war between money and time. "Am I really truthful to myself when I say that the money doesn't make me feel valuable?" says Lisa, 33, who earns twice as much as her husband, Mark, a senior manager at an accounting firm. "When I'm among my working female peers, I feel satisfied." But when she's with women who aren't putting in 70-or 80-hour weeks at the office, she feels "a tiny bit of envy." Having it all, it seems, isn't the same as having enough.

This chart shows the average hours a married couple spends each week doing housework. The horizontal ais measures percent of household income provided by each spouse.

The contributions of employed women (18-55) years old) to their families' income.

TWO-PARENT SINGLE-PARENT HOUSEHOLD HOUSEHOLD All 3% 64% Less than half 55% 10% Half or greater 42% 26%