From unequal pay to unequal wealth

To measure that inequality, one must become interested not only in income but also in wealth. At an individual level, what is meant by the terms assets, wealth, and capital (terms that are easily interchanged in contemporary economic literature) is the total value that a person possesses at a given moment. In practice this can be land, real estate, financial assets, or businesses. Wealth consists of economic assets whose acquisition permits the conservation (or accumulation) of their value, and whose final fruition (through sale) can guarantee future cash flows6. Individual wealth inequality stems in part from income inequality, but it also depends on the way wealth is transmitted within families.

The investigation of wealth inequality between men and women recently has received more attention. The few statistical analyses currently available show that, throughout the world today, men possess more assets than women (Sierminska, 2017; Chang, 2010; Deere and Doss, 2006). This should not be surprising in itself, given the income inequality between the sexes. Yet, in France, according to recent statistical data from the French Household Wealth Survey, the gender wealth gap is widening steadily: from 9% in 1998 to 16% in 2015 (Fremeaux and Leturcq, 2020). The same study also shows that men retain much more capital than women, whatever the form: housing, land, financial, or professional capital. In 2015, the average wealth gap between women and men was estimated at 24,000 euros, covering a wide variety of situations: from modest differences between working-class men and women, as neither partner accumulates much wealth, to immense gender gaps among the wealthiest classes.

Investigating the making of gender wealth inequality in the family

The gender wealth gap does not emerge from Wall Street, but in the daily struggles of family life. This inequality is produced by the unspoken practices of men and women when they act as spouses and partners, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, brothers and sisters. The inequality takes on different forms based on class: based on whether wealth consists of debts or goods, on whether it includes several thousand euros in a savings account passbook, a suburban bungalow, a Parisian apartment, a family country home, a timeshare, stocks in a company, or works of art. To make the inequality visible, one must look at the family in a different way. One should consider the family as a fully integrated economic institution that produces wealth, but also organizes wealth’s circulation, control, and evaluation under what we call family economic arrangements.

As sociologists, we have been studying for more than 20 years these ordinary economic arrangements of French families from the most modest to the wealthiest backgrounds. Barely visible, these arrangements can take many forms: small hand-outs, free lodging, security deposits, interest-free loans, contributions, inheritances, references, college financing, home health care for an aging parent, moving in to help out in an emergency, watching children, paying alimony, and so forth. Family economic arrangements are considered private, and the public discussion of their economic aspects is often frowned on. To study this subject, multiple methodologies and sources of input are necessary.

First, we carried out family monographs based on repeated and intersectional observations and interviews with groups of kin. These relatives invited us to participate in their daily lives, and in their more exceptional family moments: marriage ceremonies, funerals, celebrations. We stayed in their homes. Some of them entrusted us with their most intimate archives: notarized certificates, civil registrations, correspondence, and photographs. By using this method from 1997 to 2005, Celine Bessiere studied how family businesses were transferred in the Cognac-producing area. Similarly, Sibylle Gollac investigated real estate property strategies in families from different social backgrounds, several of whom she followed for more than 15 years.

In completing these family monographs, we described family economic transfers in some detail. We noted that some brothers and sisters recalled quite differently the various stages of estate planning: not counting the same assets, or accounting for them differently, thus proposing extremely divergent conceptions of what a fair inheritance might mean. But family wealth arrangements are about more than money and property. As Viviana Zelizer has noted, these are intimate transactions, that is, a mixing of economic activity with intimate social relations involving emotions, moral obligations, values, principles of justice, and issues about reputations that are all inscribed in a long-term narrative of interpersonal relations (Zelizer, 2005). On the whole, men and women do not occupy the same place in this process: neither acts in the same way or has the same aspirations; and their loved ones do not expect the same things from both of them.

Because family monographs cannot be used to research a large number of people, and because they make it difficult to compare different social classes, we combined them with statistics, particularly data arising from the French Household Wealth Survey. To dig deeper into an analysis of the gender wealth gap, we also implemented field studies to describe two extraordinary moments which clarify and formalize family wealth arrangements: marital separation and estate planning.

Splitting up. Inheriting: two moments that are strictly legally codified. These are matter of family, fiscal, and civil law. Based on social class, relatives may have to meet with legal professionals who accompany them in a more or less diligent fashion throughout this confrontation with law. Our research thus brought us into other locations: the offices of family practice lawyers and notaries, and civil family courts. Though we separately conducted studies that led to the family monographs, we worked together investigating notaries. As for materials related to family courts and lawyers, these were collected as a part of a larger collective study begun in 20 087.

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