Women in Paid Work: Some Consequences and Questions For Family Income and Expenditures

ABSTRACT - The paper examines consumer preference and expenditures in relation to woman's market work and income. Working woman's participation rates, family forms, and income patterns are analyzed. Identification of research needs emphasize consumer expenditure studies at moment of time and studies of market responsiveness to changes over time in working woman's lives.


Hila Kahne (1981) ,"Women in Paid Work: Some Consequences and Questions For Family Income and Expenditures", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 585-589.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 585-589


Hila Kahne, Wheaten College


The paper examines consumer preference and expenditures in relation to woman's market work and income. Working woman's participation rates, family forms, and income patterns are analyzed. Identification of research needs emphasize consumer expenditure studies at moment of time and studies of market responsiveness to changes over time in working woman's lives.

Now that the social revolution in women's roles has become a settled way of life, analysis has begun of the economic consequences of these changes both for individual lives and for the economic life of the society. This paper looks at one aspect of these consequences which result from changes in numbers, characteristics and income of women engaged in paid work. It is concerned with how consumer preferences and expenditures are altered by women's labor force participation and by the income earned.

I will begin my discussion by reviewing the changing trends in women's work force participation and their family characteristics occurring over the past decade. I will then present some data on income patterns that have resulted from the influx of women into paid work. The section will conclude with brief comments on expected future trends related to working woman, which have consequences for consumer needs and demands. The final section discusses three broad questions which require research attention if we are to understand more fully the relationship between working woman and consumer behavior.


World War II and its aftermath speeded up a process of women's entry into paid work earlier given impetus by the dramatic population shift from farm to city, a shift which made it feasible for women to take paid jobs in place of unpaid labor on the family farm (Waldman 1976). Between 1950 and 1965 the proportion of women in the civilian labor force increased from 29.6% to 35.2%. More than one-half of the net addition of 7.8 million women workers were accounted for by mature middle-aged women, most of whose children, if they had any, were grown.

Since 1965 the social revolution in women's paid work has moved to a different age group. In this period, it is young women, particularly young married women and mothers of pre-school children who have experienced the most marked shifts of entry into paid work. During the decade of the 1970s, 58.8% of the 20.2 million person increase in the civilian labor force was due to the influx of women with the result that by 1979 43.4 million women, more than double the 18.4 million in 1950, were working or looking for work. They represented 42.1% of the paid civilian labor force of 103 million persons (29.5% of the labor force of 62.2 million in 1950). Fifty-one percent of all women 16 years and over were in the labor force. Between 1970 and 1979 women aged 25-34 accounted for nearly one-half of this increase in the number of female workers, despite the fact that almost three-fourths ware married with a husband present and had young children at home (Norwood and Waldman 1979). By the end of 1979, almost two-thirds of all women aged 25-34 and 54% of mothers in this age group were working or looking for work. Overall, between 1950 and 1978, although the labor force participation rate of women increased by 50%, that of married women, husband present doubled, reaching 47.6% in 1978, and that of married women, husband present with children under age 6 increased by more than three times, being 41.6% in 1978. Just as for mature women in the earlier period, the rate changes were mostly due to continued rising participation rates of women with similar characteristics, not to demographic changes in the female population itself. Paid work discontinuities, associated with marriage and child rearing in the past, are today strikingly diminished as important causes of women's life cycle work pattern.

One of the most important consequences of these changes in women's labor force participation rates has been the increased prevalence of the dual-worker family, now 60% of all married couple families (36% in 1950). The group, now numbering 28.4 million persons, has increased by 3 million since 1970, due almost entirely to the increase in the number of working wives (Hayghe 1976).

But other important changes in family forms are also taking place. Since 1970, the increase in the number of never-married women has risen significantly, an outgrowth of the coning of age of the "baby boom" generation and of the greater prevalence of postponed marriages. The rise in their labor force participation rates between 1970 and 1978 was greater than that for women in any other marital status, reaching 60.5% in March 1978, with the result that single women now comprise about one-fourth of the working woman population, a proportion not reached since 1957 (Johnson 1979). At the same time, the number of divorced women in the labor force has doubled between March 1970 and March 1978 as a result of a dramatic rise in the divorce rate, from 2.5 per thousand population in 1965 to 5.2 per thousand population in May 1978. The labor force participation race of divorced women is higher than that for women in any other marital status (Johnson 1979).

Largely due to the rising incidence of separation and divorce (and also somewhat due to an increased number of never-married women who head families) the past eight years has also seen a significant rise in the proportion of families maintained by women. One in seven families in 1979 fits this description; their numbers are up 48% from 1970. Their 1979 labor force participation rate is 59.3%. Their earnings are extremely low.

How can we relate these trends in family characteristics of women in the labor force to our interest in consumer behavior? We have shown that although the numbers and proportion of working women have increased markedly, the increase is different for different marital groups. In the 1970s, increases in labor force participation are being felt most strongly among young married women, among women with young children, and among single women. At the same time there are marked shifts in the relative prevalence of family forms. Although the norm among women workers continues to be that of married status, there has been a sharp increase in the number of never-married women, a doubling of numbers of women in divorced status and a rapid rise of families headed by women, about 60% of whom are in paid work. By March 1979 30.1 million children had mothers in the labor force, almost 20% more than in 1970. Family lifestyles and incomes interact in their effects on consumer behavior. We must be alert not only to this contemporary experience with evolving family forms and labor force participation, but also to the rewards of paid work for women. Together they impact on available income and on the kinds of consumer demands for its use.


The income derived from women's paid work reflects a number of influences including the economic reward structure for particular occupations, continuity of work histories, training and education, the degree of part-time and part-year work, and at times still, the extent of discrimination. Because of the wide variation in influence of these factors among working women, a variation which is not diminishing over time, earnings distribution among women shows considerable range, larger than that experienced by men. Large earnings differences between women and men workers also continue, even when both work full time, year round (Henle and Ryscavage 1980). For many women and their families, an adequate standard of living is still contingent upon the existence of another income in the family.

Women's employment, as we know, is concentrated in a relatively few occupations, many of which have low status, little career progression, and limited economic reward. It is true that in recent years the proportion of women in some male professional fields has been growing -- e.g. accountancy, medicine, law. Professional, managerial, and sales jobs have expanded for women in a number of industries -- in the Federal government, in transportation, public utilities, finance, and insurance (Davis 1980). A recent survey of over 250 corporations documented considerable progress in the kinds of training and promotion opportunities offered to women at higher managerial levels in the private sector, particularly in female intensive industries (Schaeffer 1978). There is some indication that, spurred on by economic need and supported by affirmative action policies, blue collar women are finding jobs in construction trades and as miners, although in each division, employment is still under 10% (Davis 1980). The employment of black women as private household workers has dropped dramatically and an increasing proportion have become employed in clerical work. Among white women, the proportion in white collar positions have risen somewhat, while that of operatives have declined (Young 1980). Yet, despite such advances in women's proportionate representation in higher paying and more career-oriented occupations, the numbers of women so involved are still not large. Women have yet to reflect in their employment the full range of occupations in which men engage and for the most part have yet to achieve vertical career mobility once entry on a career track has been gained (Reubens and Reubens 1978). Women's median full-time earnings continue to be about 60% those of men, a relationship that has prevailed for the past 20 years (Norwood and Waldman 1979). The data on occupational distribution and earnings explains why income in families headed by women, even when working, continues to be so low. Occupational disadvantage reinforced by earnings disadvantage related to lack of training or experience, or opportunities, or discontinuities, or discrimination, affect both aggregate and specific consumer expenditures that would otherwise be generated by earnings from the work that women do.

Working women who are family householders and chose in dual-worker families provide an interesting contrast of the characteristics that prevail among working woman. Families with female householders numbered 8.2 million in 1978, and constituted 14.4% of all families. About 60% were in the labor force. They are a group who have grown sharply in relative importance as the divorce rate has spiraled upward (an increase of 47.7% in the past eight years). They are more likely to be black than are other families. They are more likely to have dependent children under age 18. Their labor force participation rate (58.9%) is higher than that of married women living with husbands (17.6%). Among women who head families, labor force participation is highest for divorced women (77.6%) and lowest for widows (39.4%). Their level of education is considerably less than that of married women, husband present, and indeed of working men, and this affects their occupational work and income. Except for a small movement into non-traditional occupations, the overwhelming majority of female family householders work in traditionally female occupations. Second workers in families headed by women are much less common than in families headed by men (31% and 56% in first quarter, 1977). In 1979, 53% of families where the husband was unemployed had at least one employed family member; only 17% of families maintained by an unemployed female householder, had an employed family member. Responsibility for family maintenance rests heavily on the shoulders of female family householders. What can we say about income of these families?

Because of low average earnings, lack of steady employment, and absence of supplementary income from other earnings or asset sources, median income of these families is low. In 1977, it was $7,700, or only 44% of the $17,720 total for husband/wife families, Women family heads earned about $6,370 or $8,850 if they worked at full-time jobs all year. (Men earned an average of $13,600 or $15,600 for full-time year-round jobs.) Consistently during this decade, about one-third of all families headed by women had money income below the poverty level, compared with about 5% of husband/wife families. Consumer behavior for individuals in this family form is strongly influenced by the absence for many of even a basic minimum income.

Dual-worker families provide contrast in both their composition and income level. They are about 60% of all married-couple families; in one-half of such families, both the husband and wife have jobs. Such families tend to be not only with higher income, but also younger, more mobile, and of greater educational achievement than single-earner families (Rawlings 1978). Despite the fact that only about 17% of husband/wife dual-worker couples both hold full-time jobs (1976 figure), the pay of working wives contributes about one-fourth of the family income, a figure that has remained constant over the past two decades (Johnson 1979). Wives who worked year-round full time in 1977 (41.7% of working women in dual-worker families) had a median income of $8,600 and contributed 38% to the family income. Median income for families with the husband as the only earner was $15,796 in that year compared with $20,723 when both husband and wife worked (Johnson 1979). In general, wives' earnings were lower than husbands' earnings, although in one of every three married couples in which the wife had earnings, they were in the same or a higher class interval than that of her husband (Rawlings 1978). The contribution of the second family earner to the family standard of living is significant. In 1954, 57% of all families with incomes of $25,000 or more had two incomes; in 1974, the year of latest available data, in 80% of households with the same high real level of income there were two earners. In recent years a rising proportion of these higher income level households have come into being because of women's entry into paid work.

In terms of societal income distribution, the implications of the two-paycheck families are more complicated, for they cause a marked division in income between families with a single earner and those with two or more earners. In 1977, as in 1970, the income of husband/wife families when only the husband was an earner was about three-fourths that of families when both husband and wife were earners (Johnson 1979). Moreover, 60% of working wives who entered the labor force in the 1960s and 1970s came from families with husband's income in the upper middle and upper ranges (Ryscavage 1979). If this trend continues, the gap between above-average income families and below-average income families could widen further, increasing the inequality of income distribution and causing problems for maintenance of economic well being for those families still in a single earner mode.

There is no reason to believe that present trends will be reversed in the near future and in fact they may be reinforced by additional factors we have not discussed. Family forms may develop further variety -- we did not refer to forms of communal families or those in non-married family status, both two sex and single sex partners. Nor have we discussed the greater variability then in the past of movement into and out of family forms over the life cycle, a seemingly permanent pattern that also has a bearing on consumer behavior. Similarly, not only is the rate of growth of women's labor force participation expected to continue to increase, though perhaps at a slower rate, but the percent of women holding two jobs may continue to grow -- 2.3% of women workers in 1969, 3.5% in 1979. Estimates of labor force participation of women in 1990 range between 53.8%, if the number of children born to each woman turns upward again, to 60.4%, if participation continues to rise at its present rate of growth. It is expected that the proportion of the labor force accounted for by women may reach 45-46% of the total by 1990, increasing the potential influence of working women on consumer behavior. Married women are expected to account for a larger proportion of the female labor force by the end of the 1980s than today (due both to an older population and to continued increasing participation rates) and a sharp rise is expected to continue in the numbers of working mothers with pre-school children. By the end of the 1980s, two-thirds of all married women under fifty-five may be working, including over one-half of all mothers of young children (Smith 1979).

The increase in the number of households and the greeter prevalence of the smaller household, partly related to the decisions of young working woman to postpone marriage, will further influence consumption patterns. During the past decade, the number of households increased 26%, three times faster than the population growth. One-person households increased 40% between 1970 and 1976 compared with an 11% increase in multi-person households. There is some uncertainty about the rate of continued growth during the 1980s. Rising unemployment and inflation are beginning to cause elderly persons to move in with children and young married couples to reside with one set of parents. Estimates of household growth in the 1980s range from 16% to about 23%, depending on the assumptions made about life-style trends of marriage, divorce, fertility. and residence preference. The pattern of future household formation will further strengthen the influence which working women's decisions have on the consumption of goods and services.


Having described some of the recent changes in the characteristics and income of woman who work for pay, we come to the critical question of what difference changes in women's labor force participation and income will make in consumer needs and expenditures? By asking the question in this way, we seek to focus particularly on those changes related either directly (through earnings, e.g.) or indirectly (through changes in living styles such as smaller households or in consumer needs associated with larger numbers of working woman of middle age) to the numbers and characteristics of women in paid work.

I suggest three general areas which need research attention if we are to understand more fully the influence of the particular factor of working women on consumer behavior. Economic research is not yet extensive in this area. But the studies that exist not only provide important information about the relationship between income of working woman and expenditures, but suggest a context for thinking about the issues raised and about next questions for investigation. As we review the evidence, we must keep in mind not only the changes as they affect individual family units but also the relative importance of those units in the societal structure. We must remember, too, that consumer needs can be translated into effective demand either by spending of personal income or income generated by social programs.

1. What do we know and what do we need to know about the new directions in consumer needs and choices that reflect changes in the numbers and characteristics of working women and the family forms in which they live?

With the recent dramatic changes in family forms and in women's labor force participation it is important that there be available a descriptive comparative picture of the expenditure patterns of each of these family groups which are of continuing growing importance in the society. Whet are the budgetary allocations -- and needs -- of families with female householders? What are the needs and expenditures of single working woman households which have grown so rapidly in recent years? What is the consumer expenditure experience -- and unmet needs --of families with working mothers, whether male- or female-headed? On the other hand, what can we learn if we hold family form constant and compare consumer behavior of working-woman families by age (life cycle phase), by race, by occupation or blue collar/white collar status?

Some of this information is provided in a recent paper by Clair Vickery (1970). In her discussion, which focuses particularly on husband/wife families with and without a working wife, she addresses two issues. First, how do family expenditure patterns differ if the wife is a homemaker from those of a family with the wife in the labor force? In the absence of a wife's paycheck, Vickery states, expenditures on clothing, transportation, recreation, and retirement are as much as 50% lower, and expenditures on the basics of food and shelter are slightly lower as are savings and financial assets. Except for work-related expenditures, these differences reflect the different expenditure patterns of a 30% difference in income. When a wife enters the labor market, there is both some replacement of a housewife's time with market produced goods and services (e.g. restaurant meals, laundry and dry cleaning services) and some additional work-related expenses.

The second issue studied by Vickery in her own research, relates to these work-related expenses. Using data from the 1972 Consumer Expenditure Survey, she analyzed spending patterns of middle-income families with similar household characteristics (number and age group of children, life cycle stage of family head) and assets, and with the same income, to see the differences in spending for families with and without a working wife. Her analysis revealed several items of working-wife expenditures not incurred by nonworking wives which reduced the equivalence of full income between the two kinds of families who had the same money income. Working wives spent substantially more for transportation, for social security and pensions, and for clothing than did families with non-working wives. These work-related expenses (about 14% of the wife's earnings before taxes), reduced the value of the family full income and may account for the lower estimated savings and market value of financial assets, and lower rates of home ownership found for a working wife than a homemaker family. Other expenditures did not vary much between the two kinds of families except that working-wife families seemed partly to balance the work-related expenditures by allocating a lesser proportion of income to shelter. Interestingly, child care expenses did not show up as a significant quantitative expenditure for the average working wife. Whenever possible, family members appear to care for children within the home.

Vickery has provided us with a beginning understanding of budgetary patterns that result from having a working wife. But as we have seen, not all working woman are part of two-earner families. Nor, even if they are at the moment, are they necessarily continuously so throughout their lives. We need to study this. We also need studies of budgetary, allocations of working women -- white and minority -- in other family forms, reflecting a range of socioeconomic levels. We need to know more of the trade-offs involved in making consumer choices and of the unmet needs not registered by income allocations.

2. To what extent are consumer choices -- either particular purchases or amounts spent -- influenced by the fact of women's participation in paid work or by the amount of additional family income generated? Is there a different decision-making process about consumption -- and outcome -- when women are the income earners?

Theoretical conceptualization and empirical research on this question, again focuses particularly on wives' economic behavior. Economists have suggested a number of alternative hypotheses to explain purchases made with wives' earnings: Mincer suggests (1960) that working wives spend more on durable goods (a form of saving) than nonworking wives because their earnings have a transitory component which is likely to be saved; Galbraith states (1973) that they spend less on durable goods than non-working wives because of less time available for consumer administration; Drucker claims (1976) that they use income for "extraordinary purchases" because their earnings are transitory (reported in Strober and Weinberg 1977). Strober and Weinberg (1977), using data from the 1968 Michigan Survey Research Center 1967-70 panel Survey of Consumer Finances, have compared purchases of consumer durables of TVs, dishwashers, washers, dryers, stoves and refrigerators, for a sample of married couple non-farm families under age 65 with and without working wives, holding income, net assets, life cycle stage and other factors constant. They found that size of family income and whether the family had moved recently, but not the wife's labor force behavior per se, were important factors in determining the purchase of specific goods and services. Moreover, income and assets, but not wife's labor force behavior were significant in determining how much was spent for such item. The findings do not imply that wives' earnings are unimportant; rather, they stress the fact that it is the income and not its source that is the determining factor in purchases. If family income, assets, and several other variables are held constant, there is no significant difference between working and nonworking wife families in family expenditures on durable goods. A more recent study by the same authors (1980) using 1977 data from a consumer marketing panel of husband/wife families designed by Needham, Harper and Steers, extends their investigation to consumer purchases of microwave ovens and freezers. Again, holding income and life cycle stage constant, they found no greater purchase of these "time saver" consumer durables among working wife than nonworking wife families, reaffirming their hypothesis that wife's income, like husband's income, is treated as a permanent component of family income. Even the time-saving quality of the items did not alter the expenditure preference for time-pressured working wives.

The findings, not inconsistent with those of Vickery, suggest the complexity as well as the need for currency in study of these budgetary issues. We need now to extend analyses to categories of nondurable consumer goods and services (where there is some evidence of higher expenditure for working-wife families) to identify these consuming patterns. We need to study families with working women in different socioeconomic groups and family settings where tastes and pressures of time have different effects on the outcome. Experience of families with working women in different life cycle phases, of working women who experience changing family forms over time, and of working women in a non-continuous paid work pattern within one-family form must each be examined to test the consistency of findings in different settings.

3. How do economic conditions of unemployment and inflation affect consumer needs and expenditures of working women and their families? Are studies of consumer behavior based on 1972 experience outmoded by these recent conditions? Will the affluent buying behavior wrought by the two-earner family give way to a standard of living crisis when unemployment strikes one earning member? Is the seeming work flexibility, made possible for the two-earner family, over-ridden by the rigid financial requirements established by a standard of living that requires both incomes? How do female householders with lower income and fewer second earners cope with needs and expenditures when unemployment or inflation strikes the household? For these, and for other working-women groups, how are expenditures adjusted when there are uneven and significant price rises in some essential categories such as energy?

In this area I have no research answers; only questions. They are critical ones for us to begin to address.

We live in a world where women now share with men responsibility for the production of goods and services of the economy and where their incomes comprise permanent and critical components of family income. Working women live in a variety of family forms. Their standard of living rinses from one of poverty, particularly prevalent among elderly, widowed and female householders, to one of affluence, often existing because both husbands and wives work. Their consumer behavior is also influenced by their roles, values, and tastes, which reflect both societal movement over time and individual change over the life course.

Research and marketing analysis has only begun to inform our understanding of this aspect of women's economic behavior. We need to study further consumer expenditures in relation to age, race, life cycle phase, socioeconomic situation of working women so as to learn more about the potential market for such items as luxury condo-minimums for two-worker small families, microwave ovens for working wife/mothers, sophisticated maternity cloches for the woman professional, or a new range of services for the traveling woman business executive. We need more expenditure studies for working women in all family forms. We need to know how economic conditions impact on their choices.

But in addition to a concern with effective consumer demand at a point in time, we need a better grasp of the responsiveness of the market to the changes taking place over time in the lives of working women. These have both to do with changing social mores and changing social roles. They sometimes take place because of movement among family forms in which working women live over the course of their lives and sometimes have to do with changes in women's paid work status over time that occur within a single family form.

Needs may be covered by effective private demand. They may be unmet needs that require social expenditures. Both kinds should be analyzed in research inquiries.

If research can extend and enhance our understanding of these aspects of consumer behavior, we will perhaps get a more complete grasp of the totality of consumer needs in relation to the flow of individual lives. My hope is that all these aspects, and not only individual product preference, can be addressed by our studies, so that we will be better able to assure that improvement in the quality of our lives proceeds apace with increased sales and marketing returns.


[Unreferenced figures are from U.S. Dependant of Labor and U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of Census sources.]

Davis, Hoard (1980), "Employment Gains of Women By Industry, 1968-78," Monthly Labor Review, 6, 3-9.

Hayghe, Howard (1976), "Families and the Rise of Working Wives - An Overview," Monthly Labor Review, 5, 12-19.

Henle, Peter and Ryscavage, Paul (1980), "The Distribution of Earned Income Among Men and Women, 1958-77," Monthly Labor Review, 4, 3-9.

Johnson, Beverly L. (1979), "Marital and Family Characteristics of Workers, 1979-78," Monthly Labor Review, 4, 49-52.

Norwood, Janet L. and Waldman, Elizabeth (1979), "Women in the Labor Force: Some New Data Series," U.S. Dept. of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics Report 575. (1980).

Rawlings, Stephen (1978), "Perspectives on American Husbands and Wives," U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Special Studies Series P-23, No. 77.

Reubens, B. G. and Reubens, E. P. (1977), 'Women Workers, Nontraditional Occupations and Full Employment," in U.S. Joint Economic Committee, American Women Workers in a Full Employment Economy, 103-126.

Ryscavage, Paul, (1979), "More Working Wives Have Husbands with 'Above-Average' Incomes," Monthly Labor Review, 6, 40-42.

Schaeffer, Ruth O. (1978), "Improving Job Opportunities for Women -- From A U.S. Corporate Perspective, 1970-1975," The Conference Board.

Smith, Ralph E. Editor (1979), The Subtle Revolution: Women at Work, Washington. D.C.: The Urban Institute.

Strober, Myra H. and Weinberg, Charles B. (1980), "Strategies Used by Working and Nonworking Wives to Reduce Time Pressures," Journal of Consumer Research, 6, 338-348.

Strober, Myra H. and Weinberg, Charles B. (1977), "Working Wives and Major Family Expenditures," Journal of Consumer Research, 4, 141-147.

Vickery, Clair (1979), "Women's Economic Contribution to the Family," in Ralph Smith, Ed., The Subtle Revolution, Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute.

Waldman, Elizabeth and Klein, Deborah P. (1976), "Women in the Labor Force: Secular Trends and the Impact of Recession," paper presented to the Society of Government Economists, Sixth Annual Conference.

Young, Ann McDougall (1980), "Work Experience of the Population in 1978," Monthly Labor Review, 3, 43-47.



Hila Kahne, Wheaten College


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 | 1981

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