Academic journal article Demographic Research

Women's Changing Socioeconomic Position and Union Formation in Spain and Portugal

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Women's Changing Socioeconomic Position and Union Formation in Spain and Portugal

Article excerpt


Economic and sociological theories of marriage have long emphasized the impact of women's education and employment on union formation. In this study, we explore the relevance of the female economic independence hypothesis to explain women's patterns of entry into marriage and cohabitation in Portugal and Spain. In these two Southern European countries, gender equity has improved remarkably in the public sphere, but family relations remain structured along traditional gender roles. We focus on three indicators of women's autonomy: educational attainment, employment status, and having lived independently from the family of origin. The analysis is based on the Fertility and Family Surveys and discrete-time multinomial logistic regression models are used to estimate the odds of marrying, cohabiting or remaining single. The results suggest that whereas the effect of female education is consistent with the independence hypothesis, women's labour force participation encourages union formation, particularly among younger cohorts. Living independently from the family of origin reduces the likelihood of entering into marriage but increases considerably the odds of cohabiting.

1. Introduction

In recent decades, union formation patterns have undergone significant transformations in all Western societies (Billari 2005). Later and fewer marriages, increasing cohabitation, rising divorce and a growing proportion of children born and reared outside marriage are some of the features that have shaped the new context of partnerships. Marriage, which was once part of the natural progression into adulthood, has lost much of its centrality in structuring women's (and men's) adult lives.

Theoretical models of marriage have long emphasized the changing social and economic position of women as a key catalyst of these changes. Women's increasing education and earning power have been hypothesized as reducing the "gains" and desirability of marriage (Becker 1981). However, the economic independence hypothesis, as it is commonly referred to, has received only limited empirical support in micro-level analyses. Several studies have shown that women's higher educational attainment and greater economic resources, as measured by employment and earnings, have little effect on marriage formation or else a positive effect in a number of countries, such as the US (Oppenheimer and Lew 1995; Thornton et al. 1995; Goldstein and Kenny 2001; Sweeney 2002; Xie et al. 2003), the UK (Berrington and Diamond 2000), the Netherlands (Liefbroer and Corijn 1999), Sweden (Bracher and Santow 1998), Germany (Blossfeld and Huinink 1991) or Australia (Santow and Bracher 1994). In fact, empirical evidence consistent with the economic independence hypothesis has only been found in certain countries, such as Italy (Billari et al. 2002) or Japan (Ono 2003; Raymo 2003; Raymo and Iwasawa 2005). This pattern of cross-country variation has prompted scholars to look into the interplay of gender relations in the public and private domains as a conditioning factor of educated women's decisions regarding marriage. Educational attainment appears to deter marriage mostly in societies where improvements in women's economic opportunities have not been accompanied by an important reorganization of men's and women's responsibilities within the family, increasing the opportunity costs of union formation.

When the independence hypothesis was developed, marriage was the predominant form of conjugal union, but nowadays cohabitation provides an increasingly common pathway to marriage or an alternative to it. Compared to marriage, which typically carries with it strong implicit assumptions about gendered family roles, cohabitation is less institutionalized, and couples may feel freer to negotiate their relationship on an equal basis (Cunningham 2005). This type of union, with more flexible gender role expectations, is expected to be more attractive to educated women. …

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