Review Society

Women work, Men accumulate…

About : Céline Bessière, Sibylle Gollac, Le genre du capital, La Découverte

Through an ethnographic investigation allowing them to go behind the scenes of notaries public’s offices and law firms, two sociologists show the origins of profound gender inequalities in the distribution of family assets.

An increasing number of women are exercising a professional activity; their wages, for equivalent work, are still inferior to those of men, but the gap is tending to diminish. Parity is far from attained, but it is progressing in many fields. So what about in terms of assets? How does the division of economic family capital occur between men and women? The question posed by Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac is an important one, because after reading T. Piketty we are all aware that in the twenty-first century, the accumulation of capital within households has once again become a central dimension of wealth gaps and in the structural division of our societies into social classes, if only in terms of access to real estate.

The “return to assets” is also a return to the family institution as a key player in the economy and in the construction of social classes. It is therefore on this level that we must seek the answer to the question posed.

When we do, we notice that today’s family, far from coinciding with the enchanted picture that many twentieth-century historians and sociologists have outlined, is far from being reduced to a site of disinterested affective relations, purely mobilized to ensure the academic success of its children. It is not only founded on relationships, but also on goods and property. It is an economic institution that produces wealth, organizing its circulation and distribution.

It is therefore necessary to penetrate the “household” as a unit of statistical inquiry concerning assets, to find out more about the share of capital that is apportioned within each family to husband and wife, sons and daughters.

Divorces and separations, gifts or transfers made inter-vivos and mortis causa inheritance payments thus become privileged moments of family life for observing the “intimate transactions” (Viviana Zelizer) that take place within the family and more broadly the household (Florence Weber), measuring the value of the assets in question and analyzing the terms and conditions of their transmission to men and to women.

We thus observe that, contrary to all expectations and sometimes unwittingly, the legal professionals involved in these transactions—notaries public, lawyers, and judges—contribute, each in their own way, to reproducing or even aggravating the inequalities between men and women.

It goes without saying that these gender inequalities take very different forms depending on the social milieus: among the working classes, money problems are women’s problems, but, at the top as at the bottom of the social hierarchy, capital, even minimally, remains a male affair.

In the absence of statistical surveys distinguishing the individuals that make up the household and the respective shares of capital attributed to them, only an ethnographic approach provided access to the necessary data. The task was tough, because in France, it’s not possible to talk about money with just anyone and even less so about these familial economic arrangements that are often considered family secrets. So it was crucial to establish sufficiently strong relationships of trust with the members of these families to gain access to these secrets, to be entrusted with private archives, notary deeds, letters, photos, to be invited to weddings and funerals, and to record the points of view of the various members of the family, since brothers and sisters sometimes related the phases of their parents’ estates very differently, not always counting the same assets or in the same ways. There was therefore nothing surprising about the fact that these monographs spanned about twenty years, all the more so in that the observations and interviews had to be compared, repeated, and conducted over the long term. The real estate strategies of families of various social milieus were followed in this way for over fifteen years. These family histories that make up “the flesh of this book” constitute a considerable corpus that is both original and invaluable.

Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac also earned the trust of the legal professionals. It was no mean feat to go behind the closed doors of notaries public’s offices and law firms, sitting in on appointments with the family members, and obtaining in-depth interviews from these professionals, in which they frankly explain the reasons for their attitudes in a given divorce or estate settlement. The same goes for the authors’ authorization to observe what was said in the office of the family court judges in the event of separation or divorce, there too, in the presence of the partners concerned. The members of the families observed and the legal professionals questioned quickly become familiar figures for the reader. We reencounter them from one chapter to the next and from one procedure to the next, thus rendering palpable the difficulties that they face; their relationships with the legal professionals or their clients, partners, brothers and sisters; and their levels of understanding about the proceedings that concern them. The powerful empathy that the two sociologists demonstrate with respect to the individuals in their sample is never to the detriment of objectivity. It contributes to making this a very lively read.

Besides the construction of these ethnographic treasures, the authors also used a legal database built up from a random sample of 3 000 rulings rendered in seven TGI and 1 000 rulings rendered in two courts of appeal in 2013. Between 800 and 2 500 variables were used for each case, including sex, age and profession. The “Patrimoine” [Assets] surveys undertaken in 2004 and 2015 by the INSEE are judiciously brought into the argument and also serve as a backdrop to the study. Devised by two sociologists having accumulated over time a great deal of experience of the treatment that the family affairs justice system reserves respectively for men and women, this book is original in more than one respect. First and foremost, it radiates a powerful feminist impetus from cover to cover, which, in a revival of the “materialist” feminism of the 1970s and founded on facts, shakes up a great deal of initial representations, producing new knowledges while opening up new pathways within sociology.

A great influx of women into the professions of family affairs lawyers and judges has taken place over the last forty years, as well as among notaries public: two out of every three notaries public are women. Yet these legal professionals, often unconsciously, favor men to the detriment of women. The two sociologists have identified a professional practice shared by the contributing notaries public and the judges of family affairs: reverse accounting. In the event of separation, divorce or inheritance after death, an inventory of the assets and an estimation of their value is undertaken. The most logical process is to add up the values of inventoried goods and divide the amount by the number of rightsholders, in order to distribute an equal share to each of the partners or heirs. Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac show how, in practice, the order of these operations is reversed. The notary public begins by establishing a consensus between the parties as to the final result, that is, regarding the distribution of goods and the compensation that they involve. It is only after obtaining this consensus that, in the shadow of the market and the fisc, evaluation operations are undertaken for each asset. The value of a house or an apartment can therefore vary depending on whether an agreement is reached to sell it or, on the contrary, one party seeks to have it attributed to them. In the former case, it is in everyone’s best interest that the evaluation be as high as possible. In the latter case, it is in the best interest of the party hoping to obtain the asset that the estimation be as low as possible in order to buy out the others’ shares at the lowest price. It is however in the best interest of the other parties to obtain the highest possible estimation in order to claim higher cash payments. Notaries public, who often define themselves as “assets doctors” and the guarantors of peace within families, play a decisive role in the obtention of this consensus based on constructions of equivalency and “patrimonial arrangements.” Yet this reverse accounting contributes to the wealth inequality gap between men and women.

Among the assets at stake in a family estate as in a separation or a divorce, there are always some that are more important than others: these might be a company, a house, an apartment, a share portfolio, etc. These “key assets” or “infrastructure assets” are the first ones that the notary seeks to attribute to one of the heirs or partners. Their value allows them to then calculate the compensation proposed to the other members of the family based on economic evaluations that are often different from market values.

Yet the statistical data shows that male only children and the eldest of the boys receive these key assets more often than the younger children or the girls. It is obvious in the case of family businesses where the chosen heir is generally the eldest of male gender and it is also very often the case with real estate assets and shares. Notaries public are very fond of this patriarchal representation of the family, as is encouraged by the very term patri-monial, which they take literally. The images illustrating the part of the official website of Notaires de France predominantly feature fathers, sons, and grandsons, or nephews. The leaflets and flyers displayed in their waiting rooms are not written in non-sexist language.

In the event of divorces and separations, whether the couple were landlords or tenants, women less often have the means to retain the family home than men do. The husband keeps the house in 43 % of cases, the wife in just 32 %. In the event dependent children are involved, the gap is reduced, but situations of shared custody are very unfavorable to the mothers: the probability of having to leave the conjugal home is as high as 80 % for the women, but under 50 % for the fathers. As for the amount of compensation paid by the husband to his ex-wife, it is always limited by a concern not to threaten the husband’s economic situation, whether he’s a CEO or an employee, and even when he creates the conditions of his own insolvency.

Concerned for the economic interests of their clients and more feminist than the notaries public, female lawyers often see their leeway limited by the patrimonial arrangements previously decided at the notary public’s office and out of the shared concern not to put the husband’s economic situation or social status at risk. The same goes for the family affairs judges, some of whom refuse on principle—in the name of the emancipation of women through work—to overly encourage the status of the “kept woman” through their rulings. The very fine-tuned analysis of a social subconscious among legal professionals who most often take the man’s side, through reverse accounting and in the shadow of the law, is one of the main results of this work.

The liberties taken with the fisc in these family arrangements are another. The resistance to taxation is, say the authors, a powerful familial cement. Even if the principle of confidentiality is of variable geometry socially, the wealthiest take advantage of it more often than the poor and men more often than women.

The taxation of child support or alimony also contributes to discriminating against women. The individual making the payments (the man in 97 % of cases) can deduct the amount of the alimony from their tax declaration, whereas the one who receives it must declare it and pay the taxes relative to it.

The same goes for compensatory services designed to alleviate, in the form of a monthly income, the loss of living standards suffered by one of the partners following the divorce (the woman in the vast majority of cases). Only concerning married couples, this mechanism was heavily reduced by a law in 2000. It is now paid as a final lump-sum payment at the time of the divorce so as not to oblige the debtors of these payments (men in 97 % of cases), once remarried, to maintain two households.
Yet men find new partners more often and more quickly than women.

In broader terms—and this is one of the major lessons of this book—the authors show, with supporting evidence, that while formally egalitarian, the rights of family and property favor the men over the women at every level of the social hierarchy, but always more so at the top than at the bottom.

The central role of estates and capital today prompted the authors to revisit the work of historians and sociologists of the family from the 1970–1990s. All of these different researchers entirely neglected this dimension in favor of the emotional bonds woven within the family. The fertile economic metaphor of cultural capital, invented by Bourdieu and Passeron, which is transferred like an inheritance within well-off families, has also made no mention of the economic dimensions of transmissions. As for feminists, they have above all based their analyses and investigations on the social inequalities of wages, jobs, and labor. It must be acknowledged, in the defense of all of these historians and sociologists, that in this period immediately following the Trente Glorieuses, it was indeed through culture and labor that the biggest social inequalities between classes and between men and women widened.

The great strength of this book is also that of articulating a subtle and convincing analysis of class and genre. Intergenerational economic transmissions widen the gaps between social classes. The individualization of estates that accompanies the generalization of separations and divorces renders the economic situation of women fragile during break-ups. They end up after their separation “with nothing” more often than their husbands.

All in all, family economic arrangements contribute to maintaining barriers between social classes and to the widening of the inequality gap between men and women. Social relationships of class and male domination are inseparable.

Economics, law, sociology: the subject of the investigation is situated at the intersection of these three disciplines, none of which could capture all of its dimensions on its own. The division of family capital among men and women cannot be reduced to an accounting operation.

To understand it, we must penetrate the mysteries of the law and analyze the respective roles of the notary public, the lawyer, and the judge, as each one of these professionals undertakes “arrangements” with the law according to the interests of their client, the principles of their profession, but also their own system of values. Identifying, explaining, and understanding the multiple interactions between these various dimensions and identifying the effects that they have on the inequalities between men and women through the objective and empathetic observation of these intimate transactions, as Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac have done, means opening up new paths for sociology and fertile, multidisciplinary areas of study.

Céline Bessière, Sibylle Gollac, Le genre du capital, La Découverte, L’envers des faits, 2019, 284 p., 15 €.

by Christian Baudelot, 8 September

To quote this article :

Christian Baudelot, « Women work, Men accumulate… », Books and Ideas , 8 September 2021. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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