New research project on women’s employment and household inequality

Rense Nieuwenhuis. 

Author: Allison Geerts 

Dr. Rense Nieuwenhuis is an Associate Professor at the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI). He was awarded a FORTE research grant for his four-year project “In it together? Supporting women’s employment to reduce economic inequality among all households” that investigates gender equality in the labor market and inequality between households. I caught up with Dr. Nieuwenhuis to learn more.

What exactly will you be studying in your new project?

The increased labor market activity of women is one of the most dramatic changes in economic activity in recent decades. In prior research, I documented how the rise of women in the labor market decreased the economic inequality between households. Mainly, because there are now fewer women that do not have any earnings.

However, these previous studies were based on the income of couples. Now, families have become more diverse than just a couple, or a couple having children. There are single households and single parent families, for example. We don’t yet know how, in light of women working, increased family diversity has changed inequality between households.

The project is also comparative, you want to study this in different countries. Why?

I am interested in the influence of family and social security policy. Childcare provisions and parental leave are instrumental in supporting women’s employment, but which women are benefitting from these policies? Higher educated women who are likely to be employed anyway, or lower educated women, who in the absence of these policies might not be? When these policies affect higher and lower educated women differently, this has repercussions for inequality between households. For example, if childcare policies only facilitate high-earning women to work more, this can increase inequality between households. Especially, if these high-earning women live with high earning partners.

When it comes to social security, like unemployment or sickness benefits, it matters a great deal, whether these policies target the household or the individual. If these benefits are tied to the household and you lose your job, you might be ineligible if you have a high earning partner. If these benefits are individualized, you’d receive them regardless of your partner’s income. In the study of social security, gender has often not been taken into account. I want to pay attention to it in my research. In a sense, I want to bring in the men on the family policy side, and women on the social security side. Only if we pay attention to both, can we understand what these policies mean for inequality between households.

Why do you think this research is important for the general public?

We assume that gender equality is increasing slowly and steadily, but the employment data tell us something different. If you look at the data on women’s employment, it is only marginally increasing in Sweden, it is decreasing in Finland and in the USA. If women’s employment is vital to decreasing inequality in general, the fact that it is no longer rising or has started decreasing is concerning. So, that is what I am going to find out.


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