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University of Basel

The male breadwinner remains the norm.

Text: Samuel Schlaefli

More women outearn their male partner than commonly thought. Survey respondents tend to underreport women’s income, while overreporting that of men. Two economists link this systematic misreporting to the male breadwinner norm.

Gender issues are a relatively new field in empirical economic research. This is partly because much of the relevant data has only become available in the past few years. Furthermore, there has long been hesitation in linking datasets.

With burgeoning public interest in gender and family issues, empirical work on the topic has also increased. “Politicians today want to know what economic impact interventions in family taxation, parental leave or childcare will have,” says Dr. Anja Roth. Until March this year, Roth was a doctoral student in the research group “Applied Econometrics” led by Professor Kurt Schmidheiny and, now a visiting researcher, she has specialized in gender and family economics.

Distorted survey results

For their project “Gender norms and income misreporting within households”, Roth and her colleague Dr. Michaela Slotwinski examined data from the Swiss Labor Force Survey for the years 2012 and 2015. They study the phenomenon that the distribution of women’s incomes as a share of total couple income bunches at precisely 50 percent and shows a distinct drop thereafter. In other words, a large number of women earn slightly less than or exactly as much as their partner, but very few earn more than their partner. “In the past, this discontinuity has been attributed to couples adjusting their relative workload such that the man earned more,” says Roth.

Unconvinced by this explanation, the two economists compared the earnings reported in the survey with data from social security registers. With help from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, they were able to match each survey respondent’s income to their actual incomes listed in the register using their insurance number. The outcome: “34 percent of surveyed couples where the woman outearns her male partner underreport the female contribution to household income such that the man earns more,” says Roth. She attributes this phenomenon to gender-specific norms: “In many families, the prevailing view still is that the man should contribute the larger share to total family income.”

What are the determinants of this kind of behavior? On the basis of the available socio-economic data, Roth and Slotwinski identified the following factors: couples where women earn more than their partners while at the same time having a higher level of education or working longer hours are less likely to misreport incomes in surveys. In couples where the man is younger than or the same age as the woman, misreporting was also less frequent. Focusing on immigrants, their response behavior is affected by gender norms in their country of origin: couples from Sweden or Denmark are less likely to underreport the woman’s income than those from France or Albania.

The distortions in the survey results identified by the economists have major implications, as they have the potential to overestimate the gender wage gap. However, the study does not challenge Swiss numbers on the gender wage gap – currently 12 percent – as reported by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. These numbers are based upon the Swiss Earnings Structure Survey, where earnings information is reported by employers – in contrast to the US, for example, where the gender wage gap is calculated on the basis of population surveys.

Another study on family economics by Roth and Slotwinski, in collaboration with Dr. Matthias Krapf of the University of Lausanne, focused on how the availability of childcare affects the “child penalty” – the increase in the earnings difference between women and men following the birth of a child. “In Switzerland, earnings differences between women and men increase by 70 percent on average following the birth of their first child,” says Roth.

After having their first child, most women work shorter hours or seek more flexible jobs, which often pay less. Around 20 percent of women stop working altogether. In short: “The birth of their first child, which most women in Switzerland have between the ages of 30 and 35, has a detrimental effect on female earnings for the rest of their lives.” This is true even for women who are better educated and who had a higher income than their partner before having children.

Childcare institutions reduce inequality

Focusing on the Canton of Bern, the researchers compared the child penalties of families living in municipalities with childcare facilities at the time of the birth of their first child to child penalties of families living in municipalities with no such facilities. They drew on anonymized cantonal tax data for the period from 2001 to 2015 and tracked families’ earnings evolutions from three years before the birth of the family’s first child to six years afterwards.

In municipalities with childcare facilities, the earnings decrease six years after the birth of the fi rst child was reduced from 71 percent to 67 percent. For low-income families, the diff erence was significantly more pronounced: It reduced from 74 percent to 63 percent. “This is probably due primarily to the fact that higher-earning couples have access to other forms of childcare even in the ab-sence of childcare facilities.” This suggests that childcare facilities operating a progressive income-based payment model could contribute to greater social equality.

No change in combined family income

A striking conclusion, meanwhile, was that in families where the availability of childcare facilities enabled the woman to contribute more to the couple’s combined income, total couple income remained largely unchanged. Roth believes this is because particularly in lower-in-come families, the man tends to compensate for the loss of income following the birth of the first child by working longer hours or taking another job. In other words, the availability of childcare facilities in a municipality takes the pressure off  the man to increase his earnings.

For Roth, there is no question: “If the goal is to reduce income inequality, strengthen women’s participation in the labor market and promote equal opportunities within couples, the availability of subsidized childcare clearly has a postive effect.”


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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