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Sociology study reveals gender gap in one-percent status accessibility

Women's income is rarely sufficient to propel a household into the the top one percent of the U.S. income distribution, a recent Duke study suggested. 

The report—published in the American Sociological Review last month—showed that a woman’s income on its own qualifies a household for one-percent status in only one in 20 elite households based on the data of 40,418 households drawn from the 1995 to 2016 Surveys of Consumer Finances. The study found that the income of a male inhabitant is the primary determinant of a household’s income status.

“It’s important because [the] one percent own the vast majority of wealth,” Professor of Sociology Lisa Keister, one of the authors, said. “The role that women play there is suggestive of whether they made progress in the labor market in the past decade.” 

The one percent has held the majority of income earnings over the last 40 years. Whereas the one percent’s share of total income was 8.9 percent in 1975 to 1976, the one percent owned 20 percent of total income by 2007, the study explained. 

Women’s income helped enable households to reach one-percent status in just 15 percent of the married one-percent cases considered in 2015. Additionally, in only 4.5 percent of households did a woman's income alone earn enough to be in the one percent in 2013 and 2016, the study found. 

Marrying a man who earns income in the top one percent is the primary means for women to reach the elite status. Beyond that, women are more likely to make one-percent income through self-employment rather than corporate employment, suggesting that women face greater obstacles in climbing organizational hierarchies, the study found. 

“Higher education and self-employment are not sufficient to circumvent institutionalized work-inequality processes and secure women with equal access to personal one percent positions. Instead, we find that a financial glass ceiling remains firmly intact at the one percent level,” the authors wrote. 

The study proposes various reasons for the gender gap in one-percent earnings. Women tend to handle the majority of childcare, eldercare and household tasks, even if they are the breadwinners of the household. Moreover, the research shows that households are more likely to make major life changes, such as relocating, for men’s jobs, even when the incomes are comparable. 

“Many men would not be where they are without having spouses that were willing to do the majority of household production and willing to subordinate their careers,” lead author Jill Yavorsky, assistant professor of sociology at University of North Carolina-Charlotte, told the Washington Post.

Even though the spouses of elite households enjoy tremendous privilege, the study explained that the gender gap in one-percent earnings suggests other inequalities between men and women. One percent individual income earners are likely to garner more social and political power than their spouses. Additionally, primary breadwinners in top-income households may have more control over their households, dictating financial decisions within the family, the study showed. 

The findings suggested that scholars should be more explicit about who is included in the one percent because these individuals hold most of the substantive status in the groups. 

"That is not to say that women in elite households are disempowered or marginalized," the authors wrote. "Rather, our findings suggest that men likely hold qualitatively different positions in these households and that this difference has important social implications." 

The research also found that the gender gap in earning one-percent income has not changed since the mid- to late- ’90s. 

“[The study] shows that so little has changed in women’s income over decades," Keister said. "In the ’80s, we thought, ‘things are changing’ and ‘we are going to have it our way,’ but things aren’t really changing.”


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