The Long Goodbye to the Male Breadwinner Model

Jurists and social scientists come up with recommendations for greater equality of opportunity

February 10, 2011

The man brings in the money, the woman looks after the household, children and any other relatives who may require care, and maybe earns a little something on the side: this is the way gender roles are usually assigned in German families. This division of labour is associated with certain risks for women: they pay less into the state pension fund and have less income at their disposal. The urgent need for action in this area, if we are to prevent poverty in old age, avoid a crisis in caring for the elderly and create greater gender equality, emerged clearly at a conference entitled “Zeit für Verantwortung im Lebensverlauf – Politische und rechtliche Handlungsstrategien” (Time for Responsibility in the Life course – Political and Legal Action Strategies), to which the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Social Law and the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth invited representatives from the German parliament, associations and science to mark the completion of the long-term research project “Was kommt nach dem Ernährermodell?” (What Comes after the Male Breadwinner Model?).

“Giving people time to assume responsibility, to contemplate the upheavals and critical transitions in their life courses, and offering them support is a matter of crucial importance,” says Eva Maria Hohnerlein from the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Social Law, in reference to the task undertaken by the three independent research groups that examined the topics of support for family-member carers, matrimonial property law and women as family breadwinners as part of this project. Together with law sociologist Edda Blenk-Knocke (also from the MPI for Foreign and International Social Law), Hohnerlein was responsible for the scientific coordination of the interdisciplinary research project on the changes in the role models of women and men in society and law, which was funded by the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.

The research groups presented their findings to the political arena at the conference. In addition to submitting a detailed account of the allocation of roles in the various family settings, they also provided realistic proposals for new action strategies in the field of gender equality policy. “Gender roles are in flux today. The roles assumed by women and men are often subject to – planned or unplanned – changes over the life course. Therefore, all three research groups examined topics that focus on the typical role models at certain milestones or critical transitions in the life courses of men and women,” explains sociologist Edda Blenk-Knocke.

Supporting family carers

Usually it is women who care for their relatives when they become old and frail.

The “Supporting Family Carers” research group, which was headed by Ulrich Becker, Director of the MPI for Foreign and International Social Law, investigated the topic of care in the domestic context. “The principle of the primacy of home care, which is enshrined in the German long-term care insurance system (Pflegeversicherung), indirectly implies the de facto allocation of the responsibility for relatives who require care to women,” says Edda Blenk-Knocke. Of course, male partners and sons who care for family members also exist in Germany; however, they are in the minority. Seventy-five per cent of the care provided in the home is provided by women. “The basic role model that lies behind the provision of care by family members in Germany remains the traditional male breadwinner model, which is based on a wife who is not gainfully employed or does little paid work, is insured indirectly through her husband and can do without her own income and independent social insurance,” the sociologist explains.

However, as the research project has shown, the reality of the role models is far more varied. “Independent income security in our society is mainly achieved through employment,” Blenk-Knocke comments in reference to the socio-economic background to the project. Women in full-time employment are able to fund their own pension provision but would face a double burden if they had to care for relatives themselves in their spare time. Part-time workers make lower contributions to the pension insurance funds. Thus gender equality and social policy face the challenge of achieving greater compatibility between the provision of care and work. “Otherwise, we will soon face an enormous problem”, warns her colleague Hohnerlein with reference to current demographic trends and statistics, according to which the risk of requiring care may be expected to rise significantly from the age of 85.

The research group presented different options that could improve the situation of family carers, e.g. through the possibility of a legal entitlement to leave of absence that would go beyond the current legal provisions. According to the researchers, an important starting point from a gender equality policy perspective would be the provision of legally-based workforce withdrawals and transitions for women and men who assume responsibility for providing care to relatives in the home. According to Hohnerlein, different solutions for minimising the financial disadvantages associated with a period of caregiving are conceivable. “These range from compensation for reduced income for employees to the financial recognition of the care provided by family members who could also be associated with the professionalisation and, therefore, upgrading of this activity.”

Accompanying measures, for example in the areas of health insurance or unemployment insurance, could contribute to the minimisation of the financial risks for family carers. “And the chances of achieving an adequate standard of living in old age are increased through the improved crediting of periods spent providing care by means of pension payments based on the model of payments for childrearing periods”, she explains, as yet another possible way of improving the situation. “Whatever form the incentives for the greater involvement of men in home care may take in the future, without sufficient financial compensation, it will be impossible to overcome either the foreseeable emergency in eldercare or the unequal risk distribution between men and women arising from the assumption of responsibility for the provision of care,” stresses Blenk-Knocke.

Joint decisions – joint responsibility

The research group on matrimonial property law, which was headed by Barbara Dauner-Lieb of the University of Cologne, focused on the change that occurs in people’s life situations on contracting marriage. In particular, the group examined the question as to which legal framework is available for marriage and should be chosen, particularly in cases in which the labour between the two partners is asymmetrically divided. The starting point for the research was the finding that most married people have no clear idea of the meaning and functioning of the statutory matrimonial property regime termed community of accrued gains. “This property regime excludes, for example, all rights of co-decision in relation to the use of the other spouse’s income,” explains Hohnerlein. This group also examined the risks associated with an asymmetrical division of labour for the partners – in particular for the partners who sacrifice their careers and, hence also, their financial prospects for the benefit of family and caregiving. “The latest family law reforms implicitly assumed the existence of modernised role patterns and ignored the question of risk-sharing that can arise for one partner through the division of labour in marriage. However, these new legal provisions do not in any way reflect societal reality,” says Hohnerlein.

Family work remains a predominantly female affair

“The traditional male breadwinner model may have become somewhat less important; however, it continues to exist in a different form.” This is how Hohnerlein summarises the basic findings of two comparative European conferences on questions concerning the transformation of gender roles, which were held in 2007 and 2008 as part of the research project. Overall, the research reports on the role models and gender arrangements, which have been published in the meantime, paint a picture of country-specific pluralism whereby the dual earner model is dominant in Denmark and France, full-time/part-time employment combination (modified breadwinner model) is most common in Great Britain and Germany, and the traditional male breadwinner model still prevails in Italy.

“It has been practically impossible to speak of the partnership-based redistribution of gainful employment and family work up to now,” summarises Blenk-Knocke. Despite all the avowals to the contrary by ‘modern men’, the involvement of men in the domestic sphere continues to leave much to be desired. “Although we can report a change in attitudes here, it has not been accompanied by a change in behaviour,” Hohnerlein comments, summarising the inconsistency in the image of the modern man. Even when women are in full-time employment, in most cases, responsibility for housework and family work still rests squarely on their shoulders. “What is astonishing is that even in the case of dual earners, the women still bear the main responsibility for the domestic sphere,” adds her colleague Edda Blenk-Knocke. “Consequently, the dual burden is primarily a problem faced by economically active women and not men.” The willingness to assume responsibility for caregiving in the family also depends on structural factors. The gender pay gap between women and men is a factor in the allocation of roles: the higher earner remains in employment.

Female breadwinners – a new constellation of roles

Another research group headed by Ute Klammer of the University of Duisburg-Essen and Christina Klenner of the Hans Böckler Foundation’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (WSI) studied a new role constellation, on which little research has been carried out until now and which is becoming increasingly common in Germany, that of the female breadwinner. This constellation is found in around 18 per cent of multi-person households in Germany. Over half of these women are in married or unmarried relationships, and the rest are single mothers. “Women often become breadwinners unexpectedly due to an emergency, for example through unemployment or their partners’ precarious employment situations” – a fact already known to the researchers from the empirical studies. “This means that they have to take full economic responsibility for their families in their working lives without having been prepared for this role,” says Blenk-Knocke, explaining the consequences of this change. This model currently has little to do with emancipation. “The assumption that what is involved here is merely the inversion of the male breadwinner model is incorrect,” she stresses. “On the contrary, this is a very difficult form of life characterised by an enormous dual burden of employment and family work.”

Overall, the female breadwinner group is highly heterogeneous. It includes women in married or unmarried relationships with and without children, single mothers, who often find themselves in the lower income bracket and in precarious employment situations, and female breadwinners in dual-career couples whose incomes have overtaken those of their partners. The latter tend to be in the minority, however. Most sole female wage earners have to get by with less money than their male counterparts because they are paid a lower salary than men for the same work or are in lower-paid professions. Against this background, one of the central questions raised by these research groups is how employment and income opportunities can be improved structurally. Moreover, as Blenk-Knocke points out, the question as to how men can be supported in participating in household tasks and caregiving remains unresolved.

No easy solutions

The research groups failed to provide any easy solutions for the cases investigated at the end of the project. “The role models involved are too varied,” say both coordinators. However, in addition to presenting their rather disappointing findings on the current status of gender role allocation, they were able to make some suggestions as to how greater equality of opportunity can be achieved for the different life models and phases – for example, through reforms in the matrimonial property law to ensure the more equitable distribution of the burdens and risks associated with the asymmetrical division of labour over the course of marriage. “Empirical evidence has shown that there is a greater willingness to accept the compensation of disadvantages at this point than during divorce proceedings,” says Hohnerlein. With regard to the topic of supporting family carers, the research group pleads for the consistent improvement and serious development of homecare services and daycare facilities. “And this must be affordable for everyone,” says Edda Blenk-Knocke. The care professions need to be upgraded in general. “This might make them more attractive to men,” says the researcher. It can only be hoped that such changes will come to pass, as one thing is certain: once the traditional breadwinner model has been abandoned, men will have to take on new roles and responsibilities in the family.

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