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Gender cliff: That’s why women often earn less than their partners

Women still earn less than men.

Women still earn less than men.

Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

  • In European countries, many women in heterosexual partnerships earn slightly less than or equal to their partners.
  • There are hardly any couples where the woman earns more than the man. This is shown by a study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and the Catholic University of Leuven.
  • This difference is not only due to social norms and outdated gender roles.

Despite hard-won advances in gender equality, women are still disadvantaged. They have less political participation, are more often affected by poverty and violence and on average earn less than men.

A look at the relative distribution of income in heterosexual marriages in European countries shows that women often contribute only slightly less or as much as their partner to the common household. But then the curve drops steeply. There are therefore very few couples where the woman earns more than the man.

So far, mainly social norms have been used to explain this difference in income. It would still be against social conventions if the woman in a partnership earns more than the man. A new study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research and the Catholic University of Leuven shows that the steep decline of the curve after the 50:50 point is not only due to ideal but above all institutional conditions.

The gender cliff: While there are many partnerships in which the woman earns almost as much or as much as the man, the curve then drops steeply: There are only a few partners who contribute more than 50 or 60 percent to household income .

The gender cliff: While there are many partnerships in which the woman earns almost as much or as much as the man, the curve then drops steeply: There are only a few partners who contribute more than 50 or 60 percent to household income .

Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany

Research is based on the assumption that men and women have the same partner preferences

Scientists André Grow and Jan Van Bavel conducted a thought experiment for their investigation. What if the male and female partner preferences were the same and there was no social norm stating that the husband should earn more than his wife? Would there still be a difference?

In their hypothesis, the scientists assume that both women and men prefer high incomes over low incomes when choosing a partner. This means that men often get together with a partner who earns less than she does. Because even if a man is considered a low-wage earner, he will usually get more salary due to existing wage differentials – the so-called gender pay gap , as a low-earning woman.

There are still many women who have more income than low-income men. However, these women usually prefer a man who is better off in their partner choice, the press release says. This could lead to income differences without women and men consciously avoiding a situation in which the partner earns more due to social norms.

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A virtual marriage market shows astonishing similarities to reality

To check this assumption, the demographers made a simulation. To put it simply, they sent the income data of 25 to 45 year old men and women from 27 different European countries to a virtual marriage market. The men and women in the simulation had a task: they should look for a partner with the highest possible income.

The results of the simulation are similar to the real empirical data. In the simulation, too, couples were often found in whom the woman earned slightly less than her partner – at least the woman generally did not have a higher income. The cliff at the 50 percent mark of income distribution is just as clear in the simulation.

Aspects such as the level of education of the partner, the social environment or the tax system were not taken into account in the model. Of course, they also play a role in the real marriage market, the scientists point out. With their model, Grow and Van Bavel do not want to deny that social norms regarding the distribution of income in marriages still exist.

Nevertheless, the study impressively shows that this social norm is not needed to explain the income cliff. Rather, it is structural and institutional causes that maintain the wage gap between women and men and thus lead to income inequalities.

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