Gender and Wealth Accumulation Mini-Conference at SASE’s Virtual Conference

SASE mini-conferences are collections of panels featured separately from the main SASE program, organized around a topic distinct from existing Networks. Because of SASE’s diversity of perspectives, methodological approaches, and networks, mini-conferences often focus on novel ideas, charting out new areas for scholarship or combining streams of research previously viewed in isolation. This SASE newsletter highlights one of the mini-conferences planned for July’s virtual conference—“Gender and Wealth Accumulation”—sharing the mini-conference’s background, some details about the big questions and research, and prospects for future work.

As known to all scholars and conference participants, COVID-19 has taken a toll on our ability to meet and share research this year. In the shift to SASE’s virtual format, the Gender and Wealth Accumulation mini-conference will focus on two main panels, with more expanded meetings planned for the future.

Gender and Wealth Accumulation

The Gender and Wealth Accumulation mini-conference examines the relationship between wealth accumulation and gender inequality. Most literature on wealth, inequality, and accumulation tends to assume that wealth exists at the level of the household—a limitation exacerbated by the fact that most data on wealth is based on household-level surveys. This erases intra-household differences in gender and masks many of the processes—social, professional, and generational—through which wealth is accumulated (or not). As a result, both the wealth dimensions of gender inequality and the gendered dimensions of wealth inequality are understudied. This SASE mini-conference brings together scholars from a variety of disciplines, methods, and countries to address these important issues.

The mini-conference came about after co-organizers Céline Bessière (University-Paris Dauphine) and Maude Pugliese (Institut national de la recherche scientifique – Université du Québec) were on a panel in Network C (Gender, Work and Family) at last summer’s SASE conference in New York. The panel formally was about income inequality, but they noticed that three of the papers presented were actually about gender wealth inequalities. At another conference in Paris in June, “Accumulating Capital. Strategies of Profit and Dispossessive Policies,” Bessière noticed gender was a common theme, often arising in the details of the papers. But few conferences had dedicated space to directly examining the relationship between the two. Given SASE’s interdisciplinary nature, and the mix of statistical methods, ethnography, and interview research needed to understand this understudied issue, SASE was the ideal place to organize a mini-conference on wealth and gender. 

Several dimensions of wealth accumulation and gender norms interact to produce long-term inequalities. Persistent gender inequalities in income tend to exacerbate the gender wealth gap. Yet a large proportion of wealth is inherited rather than saved, and inequality also arises in inheritance, despite formal norms of equality. For example, in France, Bessière and Gollac show that, when bequeathing business or real estate assets to one’s children, income-earning assets are usually given to the sons, while daughters often receive cash to compensate—male heirs receive an inheritance that will produce more wealth over time. Moreover, because of the incentive to undervalue assets to avoid taxes, this distinction also means that the cash given to daughters tends to be worth far less than the assets inherited by sons. These patterns result from a combination of informal gender norms and income differences: the higher average incomes of men mean that they have the cash to compensate their sisters for assets in inheritance. There are also less well-understood patterns, such as that women on average tend to make more conservative investment choices, which in the long run further exacerbates these inequalities. 

Home ownership and divorce likewise contribute to wealth gaps. Even where a woman is the partner to retain ownership of a home after a divorce, she is likely to have a lower income and therefore less likely to be able to maintain ownership. This is less true with public housing, but the erosion of the welfare state in recent decades has both diminished the prevalence of public housing and greatly increased the reliance on wealth and savings for retirement income. This is just one of many ways in which various social and economic inequalities can snowball into large wealth differences.  

With many of these dynamics playing out within families or tight-knit professional networks of lawyers, notaries, and actuaries, a diverse set of methods and approaches is needed, including ethnography, interviews with key stakeholders, and statistical analyses where survey, tax, or other quantitative data are available. It is an area ripe for collaboration between sociologists, economists, and demographers, among others. 

The mini-conference originally planned for 6 panels to examine different aspects of this issue, including the intersection of gender and wealth, measuring the gender wealth gap, and how this process relates to retirement, marriage, or inheritance. With the switch to a virtual format, the program has been reduced to two main panels, which can be viewed at the following times:

9:00 -10:30 AM EST, Saturday July 18, 2020

9:00 -10:30 AM EST, Sunday July 19, 2020

Future work in this area must overcome data limitations—primarily, save for a few countries, wealth surveys are almost always gathered at the level of the household, which masks or erases gender differences. Likewise, future work must examine how gender wealth inequalities interact with differences of race, class, or immigration status. For example, how lower incomes by class reduce the incentive for tax deferral through retirement accounts in jurisdictions with defined-contribution retirement accounts. Or, how household responsibility for savings and financial management changes between genders by class: the wealthier the family, the more likely that it is a man who is responsible for the finances. 

Interest appears to be growing in these issues, and future work will build on this interest and these insights. Bessière and Pugliese are following the developments in travel restrictions from COVID, with hopes to organize a new conference on gender and wealth accumulation in the near future, possibly at next year’s SASE conference.

Article by Erik Peinert

This article is taken from the SASE Summer Newsletter 2020. Click here to go back to the contents.