Four Decades of Changes in Partners'' Relative Incomes: Gender Revolution or Men’s Unemployment?

Agnese Vitali, University of Southampton

This contribution provides an overview of changes in the distribution of partners’ relative incomes between the 1980s and the early 2010s in 10 OECD countries using household- and individual-level data on labour incomes from the Luxembourg Income Study database.

Preliminary results show that the distribution of couples’ relative incomes has become, during the past forty years, more symmetrical i.e. gender-equal, particularly in Scandinavian countries, which are closer to completing the gender revolution than any other countries in the analysis. In particular, the share of couples with women as main earners, i.e. women earning more than their partners, has been increasing gradually over time - again especially so in the Scandinavian countries. However, in all countries, the mean of the relative incomes’ distribution seems to stall below the 50% threshold, indicating the existence of barriers to the achievement of a gender-egalitarian equilibrium. Also, the share of male-breadwinner couples, i.e. with the man as the sole earner, is still considerably higher than the share of female-breadwinner couples, i.e. with the woman as the sole earner, although such differences have been declining over time. Contrary to what the gender revolution theory would predict, the share of female-breadwinner couples has not increased over time, nor is it higher in Scandinavian countries than elsewhere. Female-breadwinner couples are linked to the business cycle more than to the diffusion of gender equality: the share of female-breadwinners across countries rise during periods of economic downturns, when the male-dominated job sectors are exposed to higher uncertainty, according to fixed effects regression results.


According to the Gender Revolution framework (Esping-Andersen and Billari, 2015, Goldscheider et al., 2015), during the transition towards a gender-egalitarian society, partners’ roles in the public and private spheres change, and so do their relative incomes. This contribution provides an overview of macro changes in partners’ relative incomes between the 1980s until the 2010s across the developed world and asks whether the Gender Revolution vs. men’s deteriorating economic circumstances can explain such changes.

In the gender equilibrium, we shall expect the share of the income provided by the woman to resemble a bell-shape distribution with a mean equal to 50%, i.e. we expect the arrangement whereby partners contribute equally to the household income to be most frequent. Any deviation from equality of incomes is expected to be non-gendered: the share of couples where the woman contributes x% of the couples’ incomes is equal to the share of couples where she contributes (100–x)%. Also, in equilibrium, we expect the share of male-breadwinner couples to equal the share of female-breadwinner couples. We shall also expect such changes to be more pronounced in those countries which are closer to completing the gender revolution, namely the Scandinavian countries, and more modest in those countries where the revolution is still in its infant phase.

At the same time, women’s education, employment and wages have increased relative to men’s. Partners’ relative incomes might change as a result of structural characteristics in the labour market which have been unfavourable to men and favourable to women due to their gendered distribution across job sectors (Vitali and Arpino 2016).

This contribution makes use of data form the Luxembourg Income Study Database which provides cross-sectional micro-level household data on income and socio-demographic information. This paper focuses on 16 OECD countries for which LIS provides data spanning between the late1980s and the 2010s: Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany (West), Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, UK and US. The sample is constituted of co-residing couples where partners are aged between 25 and 54 years old, none of the partners is disabled, in education, or retired and such that the couples’ combined labour income is not equal to zero. Incomes refer to the partners’ labour income, including monetary payments and value of non-monetary goods and services received from dependent employment as well as profits/losses and value of goods for own consumption from self-employment.

The observed increase in the share of couple’s incomes provided by women supports the idea of a progressive diffusion of new attitudes and behaviours compatible with the gender revolution: the distribution of couples’ relative incomes has become, during the past forty years, more symmetrical, particularly in Scandinavian countries (Fig 1). However, in all countries, including the Scandinavian ones, the mean of the relative incomes’ distribution seems to stall below the 50% threshold, indicating the existence of barriers to the achievement of a gender-egalitarian equilibrium (Klesment and Van Bavel 2015). Also, the share of male-breadwinner couples is still higher than the share of female-breadwinner couples, although such differences have been declining over time. Remarkably, there is no or very little change over time in the share of couples where women earn between 71% and 99% or more of their household income. Interestingly, in most countries, the share of female-breadwinner couples (i.e. couples where the woman earns 100% of the couples’ incomes) increased substantially between 2005 and 2013 in those countries especially affected by the 2008 economic crisis. Such trend is observed also during the late 1980s and the early-1990s, i.e. during the economic downturn which followed the 1987 Black Monday and caused unemployment rates to soar, especially in the male-dominated job sectors. The share of female breadwinners in a given country and year appears to be positively and significantly associated with male unemployment according to fixed-effects regression (not shown).

References

Esping‐Andersen, G. and Billari, F. C. (2015). Re‐theorizing Family Demographics, Population and Development Review, 41: 1–31.

Goldscheider, F., Bernhardt, E. and Lappegård, T. (2015). The gender revolution: A framework for understanding changing family and demographic behavior. Population and Development Review, 41: 207–239.

Klesment, M., and Van Bavel, J. (2017). The reversal of the gender gap in education, motherhood, and women as main earners in Europe. European Sociological Review, 33.

Vitali, a. and Arpino, B. (2016). Who brings home the bacon? The influence of context on partners'' contributions to the household income. Demographic Resarch.

Presented in Session 1146: Economics, Human Capital, and Labour Markets