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To whom belongs the world? Volume 3: Some family members are more equal than others

The sociologist Philipp Lersch examines social inequalities: between the sexes, in wealth creation, on the labour market. Family structures play a central role in this.

Frau mit Kind am Strand bei Sonnenuntergang
Woman with child on the beach at sunset. Photo: Pixabay

Our summer topics this year are all about property. To whom do belong e.g. air, water, climate, our cities - or our sleep? HU-scientists are doing research in these topics. Volume 3 with the sociologist Philipp Lersch.

If you ask Philipp Lersch whether children are an enrichment for their parents, his answer is ambivalent. On the one hand, he responds with a clear "yes” – with regard to the human facets of life. But then he points to another side – the financial one: “Women who have children must expect losses when it comes to wealth creation.” This is the result of a study carried out by the sociologist and his colleagues. “Numerous studies have already shown that mothers often have to compromise professionally and therefore on average earn less than women without children”, says Lersch. “However, the exact wealth situation has hardly been looked into at all until now.”

To find out about the financial situation of mothers in reality, Lersch and his team analysed data of the Socio-Economic Panel, a representative survey of more than 12,000 private households in Germany which is repeated at regular intervals. The result: “If you allow for other relevant factors such as education, parents’ occupation and place of residence, their personal net worth in real terms grows significantly more slowly than that of women without children”, the sociologist explains. “No comparable effect can be detected for men who become fathers.”

The calculations indicate that one third of the difference between women with and without children can be explained by the fact that mothers work full-time much more rarely. Women who have their first child early, and single mothers, are particularly badly off. Lersch’s conclusion: “While in theory, the traditional role model might increase the assets at household level, women clearly come off badly when it comes to the distribution of the fruits of the division of labour.” Lersch’s entire research work is about social inequalities. His main focus is on gender differences, wealth inequalities and the different opportunities on the labour market.

He is interested in how processes within families impact this. Just like your gender makes a difference – and especially when you decide to have children –, there are also many other relevant factors. What is relevant for the career of the children, for example, is how much money their parents have as well as their education. More and more people worry about their job prospects and thus about their financial situation up to retirement. The public debate about such matters has therefore become more intense in recent years.

In May, Lersch was appointed to the endowed professorship in the sociology of social policy, a joint project of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the German Institute for Economic Research and the Socio-Economic Panel, which is based there. During the first funding period, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs funds the professorship with more than one million euros. The aim here is to help strengthen social policy as a research focus at German universities “The research is based on two fundamental perspectives", the sociologist explains. “We look at structures and developments both within generations and across generations.” We take into account the context of different welfare states as well as demographic changes.

When it comes to investigating social issues, inequality and gender aspects, national differences are also relevant. These may be fiscal in nature and thus shape the culture of an entire country. In the United Kingdom, for example, the focus is on individual taxation; households play a much lesser role for taxation than in Germany. “In the UK, married women with children have greater incentives to save individually”, according to Lersch. “Such circumstances can shape how people view things and have an effect on behaviour.” The sociologist uses the debate about inheritance tax in this country as an example to show that this is not always rational.

This tool in particular is able to an extent to lessen social inequality, which intensifies over several generations. “And even though hardly anyone is personally affected by this, a large majority of people get upset about it”, says Lersch. This would need to be challenged, because “in the long term excessive inequalities jeopardise social cohesion.”

Author: Lars Klaaßen


Prof. Dr. Philipp Lersch
Department of Social Sciences
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Phone: +49 2093-66577