Gender Inequalities, Households and the Production of Well-Being in Modern Europe

By Tindara Addabbo, Marie-Pierre Arrizabalaga, Cristina Borderias and Alastair Owens. Ashgate, 2010, xx + 318 pp, hbk, 0 754 67968 4, £65.

The symposium in Barcelona which gave birth to this edited collection belongs to a European research project on gender and well-being charged with developing a new concept of well-being and new social indicators which will reflect the different circumstances of male and female lives. This will in turn provide a gendered framework for the evaluation of social policies. The Barcelona symposium was particularly concerned with the production and distribution of well-being within the family: a family which can no longer be regarded as an ‘undifferentiated economic unit’ (p.xix), suggesting that an important question is the extent to which largely female work within the family compares to largely male work outside it in relation to their contributions to well-being within the family.

An introductory chapter is followed by a discussion of Amartya Sen’s ‘capability approach’: well-being understood as the opportunities open to us. Ingrid Robeyne’s verdict is that this approach needs to be supplemented by research on the extent to which decisions within the family are a matter of free choice and the extent to which they are conditioned by cultural norms which encourage unjust decisions within the family.

Chapter 3 offers a history of the British family which shows that ‘the families of today are neither novel nor new. They have a fragility and form that with minor shadings has been common for working-class families through the industrial era’ (p.57). The fourth chapter combines production and reproduction into a single complex system, notes that higher numbers of women in employment has become the means of maintaining families’ economic viability during a period of ‘wage containment’ (p.74), and finds that in this context adequate public services are essential to family members’ well-being.

Most of the rest of the book studies particular aspects of the field in particular places and at particular times: Scandinavian widows’ income strategies between 1890 and 1910; communal and state care in nineteenth-century Austria; unpaid work, well-being and the allocation of time in contemporary Italy; home care workers in contemporary Belgium; intergenerational support in families in Britain since the nineteenth century; gender inequalities in family consumption in Spain from 1850 to 1930; differential access to education in Switzerland between 1880 and 1930; celibacy and gender inequalities in the Pyrenees since the nineteenth century; the relationship between Italian family members’ life plans and the ways in which money moves and is controlled within the family; and post-separation incomes in four European countries.

What emerges is the complexity of relationships within the family, of the ways in which resources are distributed, and of the ways in which different kinds of work are allocated. Whilst it is still possible to generalise that care work within the family is still mainly undertaken by women and that material resources from outside the home are still generated mainly by men, there are complexities within that generalisation, and there is much evidence that doesn’t fit into it. Diversity is now the reality: between countries, between families, and within families.

What isn’t clear from this well-researched and most interesting book is how the research findings might influence the direction of social policy. One obvious conclusion to draw is that in a situation of such diversity, policy should be neutral in relation to how a family organises its relationships, its employment patterns, and its care work. Many of our current tax and benefits provisions are not neutral in this way. Individualised universal benefits, of course, would be.