Sexual Equality, Social Inequality

For a generation, the political class has heralded increased rates of educational achievement and labor-force participation of women as indicators of social and economic progress. Yet a review of international longitudinal studies by two German sociologists finds that the achievements cheered by feminists are actually drivers of new income disparities between families, especially in Europe but also in North America.

Hans-Peter Blossfeld and Sandra Buchholz claim that the comparative literature documents two “major determinants of social inequalities:” 1) the relatively greater expansion of educational opportunities for women, which has resulted in a greater percentage of marriages where both spouses share the same educational level; and 2) greater employment opportunities for college-educated married women, which has contributed to the emergence of a new living standard, the two-income family, that leaves all others behind.

The sociologists note that women, in previous generations, tended to marry “up,” or wed men with greater education or social status, which reflected a healthy mixing within each generation and a natural reduction in social inequalities. Because more wives then, relative to now, stayed at home to manage the household and raise the children, a college education was not deemed as critical. However, “country-specific analyses show that the proportion of women’s upward marriages has declined sharply since women’s educational attainment levels have caught up with those of men.” Consequently, mating patterns are “contributing less and less to a reduction of social inequalities.”

Further driving inequality is the diffusion of dual-earner couples in formerly male-breadwinner societies. The research indicts in particular the increased labor-force participation of married women with “high” educational resources and earnings potential, which reverses earlier patterns. When wives worked outside the home in the past, they did so as secondary earners where their earnings “had a generally equalizing effect on inter-household income,” as they compensated for husbands with modest earnings.

But today, “husbands and wives with high wages and influential social networks pool their resources,” allowing couples at the upper end of the income scale to double their advantage. “Hence, when women married to men with high earnings enter the labour force, this increases the inequality between families.” The researchers believe these factors have been responsible, since the early 1980s, for halting and even reversing patterns of declining inequality in many countries “and most dramatically in Great Britain and the United States.”

Although claiming “it would be wrong to imply the integration of women into paid employment and increasing gender equality are undesirable,” the professors nonetheless lament the loss of the male-breadwinner ideal and the shift “from a family wage economy to an individual wage economy.” Noting that the family wage provided security for less privileged households during the 1960s and 1970s, Blossfeld and Buchholz claim that “traditionally oriented couples” have “strongly lost ground in the past decades.”

(Hans-Peter Blossfeld and Sandra Buchholz, “Increasing Resource Inequality among Families in Modern Societies: The Mechanisms of Growing Educational Homogamy, Changes in the Division of Work in the Family, and the Decline of the Male Breadwinner Model,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 40.4 [Summer 2009]: 603–16.)