Whenever we face blurring dissimilarities, class structures breaking down, manifold lifestyles with fluid borders emerging, whenever differences cannot be measured any more in social science, one item still creates diversity globally: the difference in school education. It matters in private life, it mattes in relationships, it matters in marriage.

Disparities in education reverse.

Today we face a radical shift in the disparity in education of men and women effecting partnerships.

There was a long history that men were higher educated than women.  Women usually married upwards, a man with higher formal education. His status was transferred to her and in some countries like Austria she was called doctor or director if only her husband was. The household was stratified in the class system according to the status of the household member with the highest school education: the man. It did not affect the societal position of men if his wife had less school education. It was common.

In the last decades this changed gradually and now it is obvious in all countries in Europe: women have higher educational attainment than men. More women graduate from college than men do.

It started in the South of Europe. Portugal was among the first countries where more women enrolled in university than men. Than it spread all over Europe. The reason why it started in the South was simple: In the Southern European countries the breadwinner system prevails much more than in other parts: men are responsible for the financial well being of the family. The consequence: if they want to marry, they could not afford to study and disappear on the labor market, they had to look for a job. Values changed in favor of women, families sent their daughters to the universities.  They were not made responsible for the income of the family, so they could afford to stay longer in the school system and study even less profitable subjects.

But education has a financial impact on partnership and this will change the power relations a study shows.

In most couples in the European countries both partners have the same educational level, but if they differ, it is more likely that women have higher educational level, exceptions found in Austria, Germany, Czech Republic and Romania. In consequence women contribute to the household income remarkably, less in countries with a strong breadwinner systems like Italy, Greece, Germany and Austria, more in the other countries.

Higher education, higher income

Higher education goes hand in hand with higher income. Women even if they have studied financially less attractive subjects become the breadwinner in the partnership if they have a college degree and their partner has none. They are increasingly likely to contribute more than half to the family income.

But the higher education of women is not followed by the reversal of the gender pay gap for two reasons: women study subjects with less future earnings than men and they suffer still from a „motherhood penalty“ as they are scaling down the paid labor market activity when having children.

Nevertheless, the roles in the breadwinner system are starting to change: women get the breadwinner position. This has impact on the power relations in partnerships, this will contribute to rethink the breadwinner system if predominant and it might contribute to more gender equality in the long run.


Source:  Working paper 26(2015) of FamiliesAndSocieites. The reversal of the gender gap in education and
female breadwinners in Europe. By Martin Klesment and Jan Van Bavel


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