In “The Gender of Capital: How Families Perpetuate Wealth Inequality,” sociologists Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac show how ostensibly egalitarian property laws still perpetuate gender wealth inequalities. What follows is an excerpt from their new book.

It is difficult to understand a particular family’s economic arrangements and their acceptance by family members without also discussing family strategies of social reproduction. According to Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, “reproduction” involves mechanisms that preserve a social hierarchy over a long period and maintain the distribution of individual positions within that hierarchy. In daily life, people develop family strategies to maintain or improve social status: parents, for example, work especially hard on fostering their children’s status, as well as their own and that of their relatives. Family strategies of social reproduction can take many forms, playing out in marriage, fertility, estate planning, and schooling strategies, to name but a few. These various strategies work together as a system, although the people pursuing them are not necessarily aware of the implications of what they are doing. In Bourdieu’s words, there is a practical sense to social reproduction that does not necessarily arise from intentional choice.

At the beginning of the 2000s, one of us (Sibylle) studied a baker’s family near Bordeaux. The case aptly illustrates the implementation of a family strategy of social reproduction involving the transfer of a family business. The data for this family case study was collected during long recorded interviews with each family member.

In 1992, baker Marcelle Pilon was retiring, and had to choose her successor to the family business. A widow for fifteen years, she decided to give the bakery and its large attached house to her son Pierre, who was 43 years old and had been working with Marcelle making pastry. But Pierre had three sisters. As a part of the inter vivos distribution written up in the notaire’s office, Marcelle’s three daughters would each receive real estate, but a problem remained: the value of the sisters’ respective shares was of an order of magnitude smaller than what Pierre was getting. To equalize the division of assets in accordance with the Civil Code, the notarized document thus stated that Pierre would provide two of his sisters who lived nearby with free bread and pastries, daily, for over a decade. This agreement was scrupulously followed by Pierre and his sisters for ten years, under the watchful eye of their mother, who made sure each deserved baguette and croissant was delivered.

On paper, the agreement could seem precise and fair. Yet Sibylle’s ethnographic study revealed an important fact that all had neglected to mention: an old gift had been deliberately left out of the calculations. In the 1960s, the Pilon parents had purchased a pastry business for their son Pierre, then 14 years old. Pierre would later merge this business with his parents’ bread bakery to become the sole owner of both. The value of a small rural pastry business is not trivial (50,000 to 100,000 euros), but this amount was never included in the official estate partitioning. When asked about this in interviews, Marcelle Pilon and her children all justified the omission by the fact that Pierre had supposedly turned down alternative career
choices to take over the family business, all for the good of the family. And, unlike his sisters, he did not go to college. Marcelle was able to say precisely how much she and her husband had spent on their daughters’ educations, and she claimed she had had to sell a flour mill in the 1960s to pay for them. It all added up.

The matter was never fully settled, however. When Sibylle asked the sisters explicitly about the fairness of this arrangement, they first reiterated these justifications and then proceeded to relate parts of the story that challenged the official version. It turned out that the sisters had all worked at some time or other in their parents’ shop for free, while their brother was rapidly given a wage and a percentage of pastry sales. Besides, selling the mill had largely covered the cost of the girls’ studies, since one left school at 17, and the other two received scholarships while working for their parents for free. The sisters had legitimate grievances but had not dared to bring them up in front of the notaire. As Roseline explained, “What the three of us did not want—Micheline, Monique, and I—above all, we didn’t want to start a quarrel.”

Good family relations were preserved in the name of maintaining the family business, which dominated considerations of fairness between the siblings. The Pilon daughters never aired their grievances because they knew their brother’s story could be recast to his advantage: it could also be said that it was no privilege to have received the family’s business legacy, and that Pierre had actually sacrificed himself by taking over the family bakery.

Family strategies of social reproduction are collective. In the case of the Pilon family, it was important for Pierre’s sisters that the bakery remain in the family because the shop provided a locally situated social status to the entire family. At the collective level, there was a certain logic to the way the Pilon family planned the transfer of the family business. The parents did invest in their daughters’ educations, which paid off, as Monique became a school principal and Roseline became a town councilor. These various strategic elements permitted the accumulation of positions that maintained the family’s local social status. The notion of a family strategy explains the coherence of these decisions:

There is a strategy at a particular point in a game when the player, instead of making a decision at each juncture, begins to anticipate upcoming moves (temporal coherence), makes them according to a principle (spatial coherence), and, as a result, follows a particular course of action. It is of little importance whether the player follows the strategy consciously or not; what matters most is coherence. The strategy is thus what we must assume to be the basis for practices that are objectively oriented towards the same end.

The family wealth arrangements Sibylle observed were the result of strategies that were developed through a series of coherent choices based on assessments of the potential social dispositions, limitations, and resources of each member of the family in the future.

Families do not prepare women and men for the future in the same way. In the Pilon family, the sisters learned it was normal to work for free, as a disinterested way of helping out when the family business needed it. They also learned it would be necessary to accumulate educational capital in order to find wage-earning work elsewhere. Their brother learned it was normal for his work to be valued and remunerated. He enjoyed the independence and profitability of economic capital inherited at an early age, and quickly became invested in the economic welfare of the family business without ever having to look elsewhere for work. In this way, the family produced gendered individuals who were taught to play differentiated and
ranked roles according to the family strategy of social reproduction.

Excerpted from The Gender of Capital: How Families Perpetuate Wealth Inequality by Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac, translated by Juliette Rogers, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2023 by Céline Bessière and Sibylle Gollac. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The views expressed in this book excerpt represent solely the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty.