1A considerable body of literature exists on the gender pay gap but few studies have been done on the gender gap in pensions. Research only began on the question in the mid-1990s (Jefferson 2009). This book, then, is a welcome addition to the small number of existing studies, and is particularly useful in providing statistical data for international comparison, virtually non-existent until now. One reason the gender dimension has been absent from this debate is that male-female pension inequality did not necessarily result in unequal living standards upon retirement. When marriage was the predominant, stable form of conjugal life, the fact that women’s personal pensions were low was not a problem; it could be assumed that couple members would pool their income until spouse’s death, at which point the retirement system would begin paying out a survivor’s pension.
2The gender pension gap became a social and research concern when a variety of changes occurred that called the afore-cited arrangements into question. First, the assumption of income pooling within the couple may not be valid, and, as the authors note, having one’s own pension is a major determinant of economic independence, especially since pensions represent the better part of income for a considerable proportion of retirees. It is therefore legitimate to enquire into the impact of labour market gender gaps at the time of retirement and how they are evolving. While women’s massive entry into the labour market has narrowed pension gaps, it is still difficult to apprehend the magnitude of that reduction and how it is going forward. Moreover, women’s rising participation in the labour force has gone together with an increase in non-standard and part-time jobs. It has occurred in the context of retirement policy reforms that have redefined pension calculation parameters, shifted emphasis from basic retirement benefits (where disparities were relatively low) to contribution plans (the second pillar), extended working years and adversely impacted on policies that directly or indirectly targeted women (i.e., family and conjugal benefits). Another reason, not directly mentioned in the book, is the increased importance of individual benefits at a time when conjugal behaviours have been undergoing profound change. When the generations implicated in the rising divorce rate or who have chosen unions other than marriage reach retirement age, they will radically alter the structure of the retired population.
3After explaining why it is important to be attentive to gaps between men’s and women’s pensions, the authors present two indicators for studying them (Chapter 2). The first is the “Gender Gap in Pensions,” calculated as “one minus women’s average pension income divided by men’s average pension income”; this applies only to individuals who have a pension. The second is “the coverage rate,” which integrates persons without a retirement pension, a group that may vary proportionally by country, age and of course sex. Calculating these indicators is not as simple as it seems because of difficulties in defining retirees and pensions (e.g., should private pensions be included?), especially for the purpose of international comparison. Valid comparisons can only be made on the basis of suitable databases. The authors draw on the Survey on Income and Living Conditions or EU-SILC, a harmonised database for Europe. Further on, they enquire into the feasibility of using administrative data, pointing out that though each country may prefer to use its own administrative data to compile statistics, this may make international comparisons more difficult. But there are two drawbacks to the SILC survey when it comes to studying disparities in men’s and women’s pension levels and how they are evolving. First, the survey aggregates retirement systems’ first and second pillar pensions, whereas gaps between men’s and women’s situations may differ depending on the pillar considered. Second, survivor’s pensions are aggregated with personal pensions, making it difficult to analyse change in pension gaps, especially from one cohort to the next.
4Once the indicators have been chosen, the authors present a wide-ranging statistical overview of gender gaps in pensions in 27 EU member states plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland (Chapter 3). For the EU as a whole, the gap stands at 39%. The widest gaps are found in Luxembourg, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Austria. At 37%, France is within the average. Denmark and eastern countries show narrower gaps: approximately 15%. By combining the coverage rate and the gender gap in pensions we can calculate “the gender gap in pensions among the elderly”; here the overall gap in Europe widens from 39% to 43% and much more in countries with a high proportion of pensionless women. In Spain, for example, the gap for persons aged 65 and over stands at 52% whereas the gender gap in pensions is 33%. In Chapter 5 the comparison is extended to the United States. This overview is supplemented in Chapter 7 (near the end of the book) with an examination of the gap between men and women within households. Here the authors find a wider gap than at the aggregate level, while pointing out that highly disparate couples are also less exposed to poverty, an observation that pertains to comparisons between personal pensions and household’s standard of living.
5On discovering the considerable gaps between men and women in many European Union countries (Chapter 4), several questions immediately come to mind. What explains the gaps and country differences? Are they related to gaps between men’s and women’s occupational careers, these in turn due to the fact that women’s careers are much more likely to be interrupted? Are they due to different educational levels? Or to the specific characteristics of the various retirement systems? Identifying the factors associated with these gaps would help at least partially to anticipate developments over time. Chapter 4 systematically examines the gender gap in pensions by different individual characteristics that might affect pension level: education, career type, marital status, multi-pillar systems. Chapter 6 focuses more directly on retirement system characteristics that are likely to affect men and women differently.
6The substantial statistical contribution of this book that makes it so valuable may also prove a bit confusing. This is due above all to the complexity of the subject, as the authors themselves point out. Factors associated with wide gaps in some countries are not implicated in others, and retirement system characteristics interact with individual ones. The reader would of course like to know more. But as the authors explain, the first step in handling any subject is to describe it in all its complexity. The book certainly fulfils this objective, supplying a great amount of hitherto missing data on gaps between men’s and women’s pensions. It is worth noting that it follows on The Gender Pension Gap in Europe report for the European Commission. Let us hope that EU interest in the issue will make it more visible. One last remark: the expression Unequal Ageing in the book title is a useful reminder that along with the problems of maintaining and funding retirement systems, high priority should be given to evolving inequalities between pensioners, especially men and women.