Journal Article

The gender cliff in the relative contribution to the household income: insights from modelling marriage markets in 27 European countries

Grow, A., van Bavel, J.
European Journal of Population, 36:4, 711–733 (2020)
Open Access


In Western countries, the distribution of relative incomes within marriages tends to be skewed in a remarkable way. Husbands usually do not only earn more than their female partners, but there is also a striking discontinuity in their relative contributions to the household income at the 50/50 point: many wives contribute just a bit less than or as much as their husbands, but few contribute more. This ‘cliff’ has been interpreted as evidence that men and women avoid situations where a wife would earn more than her husband, since this would go against traditional gender norms. In this paper, we use a simulation approach to model marriage markets and demonstrate that a cliff in the relative income distribution can also emerge without such avoidance. We feed our simulations with income data from 27 European countries. Results show that a cliff can emerge from inequalities in men’s and women’s average incomes, even if they do not attach special meaning to a situation in which a wife earns more than her husband.

Keywords: Europe, family, gender, income, inequality, marriage, simulation
The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.