In recent years it has been possible to observe an increase in the number of families where more women earned more than 50% of the household income, and in countries like Slovenia and Ireland this concerned up to 40 and 30% of families respectively. Rates decrease considerably if we consider the number of households where women earn more than 60% of the total income but this has triggered some considerations and need for research on this trend and its roots.

These questions and the consequences of the increase of female breadwinner families were explored over the two years of the project (2017-2018) #FemaleBWin, “Female Breadwinner Families in Europe”, led by the University of Southampton and funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. The project was launched in London on 8 March 2016, with a first brainstorming meeting of the Advisory Board. COFACE Families Europe, together with other representatives of academia and civil society, sits on the advisory board.

Initial research hypothesis explains the increase of female breadwinners by suggesting, on one hand, the increase of gender equality within the family in in the couple and, on the other hand, because of the economic recession where a higher number of men lost their employment compared to women. First data analysis showed that the economic recession argument was realistic and indeed many women became first earners only after the loss of employment of their male partners, while couples where a more gender equal share of responsibilities are more likely to end being equal earners couples. Further research focused on the nature the status of women as breadwinners and whether with the closing of the economic recession, women will remain primary earners, return to second earners or move towards equal earners. Another question that was developed is the prevalence of female breadwinners in certain social, ethnic or age cohort and whether this has an impact on mating patterns. The project also explored the implications for female breadwinners families, compared to male breadwinner one and equal earners, relating to the risk of couple dissolution, household and childcare time allocation and fertility outcomes and intention.

All the research and information about media coverage is available on the project website.


Update: July 2019

Work/Family Arrangements across the OECD: The Emergence of the Female-Breadwinner Model by Helen Kowalewska, Agnese Vitali

Comparative studies of the welfare state tend to compare work/family arrangements by the extent to which they embrace a ‘male-breadwinner’ or a ‘dual-breadwinner’ family model. Yet, there is an alternative set of labour-market arrangements that is becoming increasingly common across all welfare state regime types, whereby the female member of the couple is the main or only breadwinner. Such families have received limited attention within comparative social policy analysis, which typically assumes that men in couple-households are in full-time employment. Hence, to stimulate discussion within this literature of this increasingly widespread family model, they aim to shed light on the economic characteristics of, and gender division of unpaid work within, female-breadwinner couples. To this aim, they carry out regression models, controlling for socioeconomic confounders, using data from the Luxembourg Income Study and International Social Survey Programme on advanced economies representing a range of welfare state and gender regimes. They show that families in which the woman is the only wage-earner are, on average, poorer than other family-types, including male-breadwinner ones. Furthermore, women in female-breadwinner families continue to perform the majority of domestic and care duties within their couples, thereby contributing to a double-shift of paid and unpaid work for these women. Thus, social policy analysis should pay greater attention to female breadwinners, as our findings suggest that many of the ‘new’ social risks associated with postindustrialism (e.g., in-work poverty, work/care conflicts) impact disproportionately on these women.


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