Secret of the female breadwinner: marry down

Women who out-earn male partners need to have significantly higher qualifications, Australian survey suggests

July 30, 2019
Gender pay gap
Source: iStock

University-qualified Australian women are only likely to earn more than their male partners if the men lack tertiary qualifications, according to a flagship longitudinal study.

A new report from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (Hilda) survey, suggests that women often need degrees to achieve earnings parity with male partners who have never been to university.

Launched in 2001, the annual survey tracks some 17,000 Australians in about 9,500 households. Selected results from the latest wave, in 2017, have now been published by the Melbourne Institute at the University of Melbourne.

They show that among households with opposite-sex couples of working age, just 20 per cent boast “female-breadwinner” arrangements where the women earn at least 25 per cent more than the men.

But this proportion climbs to 32 per cent in households where only the women have university qualifications – compared to 19 per cent when both partners have degrees, and 11 per cent when only the men are university qualified.

Households where both partners have degrees are slightly less likely to have female breadwinners than when the survey began in 2001, the report says. And the percentage of couples where both partners have degrees and earn within 20 per cent of each other’s salary – defined as “approximately-even” earning arrangements – has neither risen nor fallen over that period.

“There has been little change in the association between university qualifications of the couple and the earnings arrangement,” the report says. This implies that any progress in pay equity can be attributed to a general rise in women’s university attainment, rather than a trend towards highly paid female professionals.

The survey found that women’s chances of being primary breadwinners rose with their education levels. Compared to women who had left school aged about 16, their prospects of out-earning male partners increased by about 8 per cent if they had vocational certificates and 14 per cent if they had bachelor’s or postgraduate degrees.

The survey also found that educational careers helped equalise earnings between men and women. Almost one-fifth of couples with roughly equal salaries included men working in the education and training sector – compared to just 5 per cent of households where men were the primary breadwinners.

The report tracks an increase in the proportion of young adults who are full-time students, and an associated reluctance among adult offspring to leave the family coop.

It says the most pronounced increase in full-time study has been among 22- to 25-year-old women, from 14 per cent in 2001 to 25 per cent in 2017. “This attests to the greater importance given to education among young adults, particularly women, who are delaying their departure from the parental home to undertake further education.”

The survey also found education levels exacerbated conflicts between work and family responsibilities. It found that attainment of a bachelor’s or higher degree increased the odds of such a conflict by 13 per cent for men and 16 per cent for women.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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