The blog of the Urban Institute
March 16, 2021

More Women Have Become Homeowners and Heads of Household. Could the Pandemic Undo That Progress?

Over the past 30 years, women have increased their presence in the housing market, with the homeownership rate of households led by women rising while the homeownership rate of households led by men falls.

This reflects two factors: today, more women are head of household, and women have reached higher education and income levels, which can put homeownership into reach.

What do the data reveal about women’s growing presence in the housing market? And what are the implications?

Half of all households are now headed by women

Thirty years ago, in married, heterosexual households, a male partner was generally the main breadwinner and considered the household head.

Over the past 30 years, the marriage rate has declined, and more single women are household heads. From 1990 to 2019, the share of households headed by single women increased from 17.6 percent to 22.6 percent.

Even among married two-earner households, it is increasingly common to see women as the head. Among married households, the share of women heads of household increased 24.3 percentage points, from 21.8 percent in 1990 to 46.1 percent in 2019. Also among married households, Black households had the highest share of women-headed households (52.5 percent).

The result of these two effects is dramatic. In 1990, only 32.5 percent households were headed by women. Over the next three decades, the share of households headed by women increased 17 percentage points, and by 2019, households headed by women accounted for half of all households. This trend holds across all racial and ethnic groups, with Black households having the highest share of households headed by women (60 percent).

Bar chart showing the increase in the share of households headed by women from 1990-2019

More women are homeowners

Along with the increase in headship, women are now more likely to own a home than they were three decades ago. The homeownership rate among women increased from 50.9 percent to 61.2 percent between 1990 and 2019, while the homeownership rate among men dropped from 70.6 percent to 67.1 percent.

Asian women experienced the greatest increase in homeownership—in fact, Asian women have almost caught up with Asian men. Currently, fewer than 2 percentage points separate the homeownership rates of Asian men and Asian women (61.0 percent versus 59.3 percent).

During the same period, Black women increased their homeownership rate, while Black men experienced the greatest drop. The homeownership gap between households headed by Black men and Black women has declined from 19.8 percentage points to 6.1 percentage points.

Bar chart showing changes in men's and women's homeownership rates, by race or ethnicity, from 1990-2019

Women outpaced men in educational gains among heads of household, but the income gap remains

Increased homeownership rates for women who are heads of household reflect relative gains in education. Over the past 30 years, the share of women who are heads of household and have a bachelor’s degree increased from 17 percent to 35 percent. Currently, 37 percent of men who are heads of household have a bachelor’s degree, leaving very little difference in educational attainment.

This holds for all racial and ethnic groups. In fact, more Black women have a bachelor’s degree (25 percent) than Black men (24percent). This relative increase in women’s educational attainment is consistent with their increase in headship and homeownership rates.

Bar chart showing the share of household heads who are men vs women with a bachelors degree, in 1990 and 2019

Despite the shrinking education gap, women still earn less than men. The median income of households headed by women is almost $20,000 lower than those headed by men. This gap has decreased less than $1,000 between 1990 and 2019.

Even among those with a bachelor’s degree, the median income of men who are heads of household is currently more than $25,000 above women who are heads of household.

Looking at total household income rather than just the income of the household head, the gap is narrower. From 1990 to 2019, the median income of households headed by men increased from $84,460 to $101,788, while that of households headed by women increased from $47,447 to $81,000. This indicates that the second income is higher in households headed by women than in households headed by men, but still, the income gap between these households is large, reflecting wage disparities in the labor market.

What does this all mean?

Women’s gains in homeownership over the past three decades have been notable, particularly because the homeownership rate for men has dropped. These gains have been made possible, in large part, by gains in education relative to men, though the income gap persists.

The pandemic could change the landscape dramatically. Women are facing greater struggles because they are more likely to be working in industries hit harder by COVID-19, like the food and accommodation sectors.

Moreover, many women have exited the labor force, finding the demands of employment inconsistent with managing caregiving responsibilities and the education of children at home as schools provide instruction remotely. The result has been a sharper drop in the labor force participation rate for women than for men, which may further increase earning disparities. If these job losses are permanent, this could slow or even reverse the positive trend in women’s homeownership rates that we have observed during the past 30 years.

Federal relief efforts, like those outlined in the American Rescue Plan Act, could help provide the necessary stimulus to minimize the number of permanent COVID-related job losses. But the gender pay gap is still an issue. Closing it requires changing employer behavior, implementing public policy initiatives, and increasing public awareness.

Women have made significant accomplishments in the housing market over the past 30 years, achieving higher homeownership and headship, and without intervention, the pandemic could set back that progress.

(pinkhappy / Getty Images)

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