Working Paper

Characteristics of male-breadwinner, female-breadwinner and equal-earner households in Australia: The role of couple-level human capital

Published: 2024

Changes in men’s and women’s labour market investments over recent decades raise questions about how today’s couples negotiate household earnings arrangements. Using insights from human-capital theory, we examine associations between household characteristics and couples’ relative earnings. Drawing on longitudinal data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey spanning the 2000 to 2019 period, we compare couple-level human-capital characteristics of female-breadwinner, male-breadwinner and equal-earner households.

Our analyses reveal an increase in the share of equal-earner households over the first two decades of the 2000s, coinciding with a decline in male-breadwinner households. These results reflect a slow trend towards gender parity within Australian households.

We also find that women in female-breadwinner households have greater levels of human capital than their partner and women in other household types; men with a long-term health condition are more likely to be in female-breadwinner households; and female-breadwinner households have the lowest overall earnings of all household types.

Our findings add to a growing body of evidence highlighting the importance of public policies that encourage women to invest in their education and to continue investing in their human capital, including remaining attached to the labour market over the course of their lives. This includes policies that focus on both enablers for women to pursue education and employment, but also for men to legitimately take time out of the labour market to participate more actively in unpaid work and care.

At a broader level, our research points to the importance of continuing to tackle structural barriers to gender inequality.


Centre Friend

Francisco Perales

Centre Member

Jack Lam

Centre Member

Janeen Baxter

Centre Friend

Ruth Steinbring


Steinbring, R., Perales, F., Baxter, J., & Lam, J. (2024). ‘Characteristics of male-breadwinner, female-breadwinner and equal-earner households in Australia: The role of couple-level human capital’, Life Course Centre Working Paper Series, 2024-11. Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland. DOI: 10.14264/f39e3d0