Women at risk: A comparison between seven European cities


by Lara Maestripieri

Economic insecurity is a material condition that includes more than simply having a low income. It indicates a situation in which households have difficulties in autonomously attaining adequate living standards. It thus pertains to how labour-market participation, education and household structure impact on the material and living conditions of individuals in a family.

Women, more than men, are mainly affected by economic insecurity. Although increasing female labour market participation has helped in reducing the general level of poverty risk and economic insecurity of women over the last decade, it has also produced further differentiations among them, exposing women in specific conditions to higher vulnerability.

In a study recently published with my colleagues, Kairi Kasearu and Costanzo Ranci, we surveyed women 20-64 years old in seven European cities, to examine the factors explaining the higher vulnerability of some of them.

We found that the presence of a cohabitating partner in the household was the most important factor to leading to reduced economic insecurity for women. Being in couple allows for sharing fixed costs and pooling income, and also accessing specific opportunities offered to couples by the welfare system.

However, cohabitation with a partner also exposes women to a gendered division of labour and a potential risk of material dependency from their partner. The configuration of risks thus changes for women in partnership versus those who are not.

For those who live with their partner, the most common insecurity factor is the educational level of their partners. But we find four distinct models across the seven countries.

Three cities (Hamburg, Nantes and Terrassa) cluster around a “social reproduction model” by which the major determinant of economic insecurity depends on the unequal distribution of education among women and partners. A “weakened breadwinner model” characterises Bologna, as economic insecurity is influenced by a combination of women’s inactivity and her partner’s educational level.

In Leeds, economic insecurity depends on factors that might exclude women from labour market, such as having migrant background or certain age. Finally, Aalborg and Brno highlight female unemployment as the main factor exposing women’s household to insecurity.

Table 4

For women who don’t live with their partner, there is no clear factor explaining their economic insecurity across the countries. In this case, we find three models.

A first configuration shared in Brno and Aalborg is labour market driven. In this case, the most important factor protecting from economic insecurity is the full-time employment of women. An opposite configuration characterises Bologna, Terrassa, Nantes and Leeds: for single women, the care load determined by the presence of children under 18 years old and women’s education level are the two main factors. Finally, Hamburg shows an intermediate pattern as almost all the factors play a role in determining the exposure to economic insecurity.

In conclusion, the presence of different configurations of factors explaining economic insecurity shows that women’s position in European cities does not depend on the same circumstances everywhere. This differentiation is wide and only partially inferable from women’s own labour market participation.

Firstly, there is a clear association between economic insecurity and the presence of a cohabitating partner. Women living alone tend to be more uncertain, despite any other controlling factors.

Secondly, it is the joint combination of labour-market participation household composition and educational level (of both partners for coupled women) that determines exposure to economic insecurity.

Women’s weak labour market participation is the major source of economic insecurity in cities where a dual worker model is dominant. This situation occurs mostly in Northern or Central-Eastern cities.

In Continental and Mediterranean cities, female economic insecurity is mainly associated with economic dependency on their partners, and factors related to social class differentiation. In these conservative and familistic welfare contexts, the individual contribution of women’s full-time employment is not substantial.

Lara Maestripieri is postdoctoral research fellow at Department of Political and Social Sciences at University of Pavia (Italy). In June 2017, she will be a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Policies (IGOP) of the Universitat Autònoma Barcelona.

This article summarizes findings from “Women at risk: the impact of labour-market participation, education and household structure on the economic vulnerability of women through Europe” in European Societies.

Image by author.

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