The Motherhood Pay Gap: A Review of the Issues, Theory and International Evidence

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Executive summaryWhat is the motherhood pay gap?The motherhood pay gap measures the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers,the latter defined in most econometric studies as women without dependent children. Italso measures the pay gap between mothers and fathers. This is different from the genderpay gap, which measures the pay gap between all women and all men in the workforce.While there is a considerable international literature on the motherhood gap, differencesboth in methodologies and in how mothers, non-mothers and fathers are defined usingavailable data create difficulties in comparing estimates. Moreover, in many countries,the data are often unsuitable for analysis, typically because the questions posed insurveys make it difficult to establish the identity of a child’s mother or father(particularly in developing countries where the nuclear family is less common).Nevertheless, many studies draw on international harmonized pay and employment datawhich provide a useful basis for cross-country comparison, and others provideinformative trend analyses for single countries.Trends in the motherhood pay gapFrom the available data it appears that the unadjusted motherhood gap tends to belarger in developing countries than in developed countries. Globally, the motherhood gapincreases as the number of children a woman has increases; in many European countries,for example, having one child has only a small negative effect, but women with two andespecially three children experience a significant wage penalty. In developing countries,evidence suggests the gender of the child may matter as daughters may be more likelythan sons to help with household and caring tasks, thereby reducing the motherhood gap.Whether the wage penalty associated with motherhood is a one-off event or accumulatesover time also varies from one country to the next. For example, mothers who have astrong job attachment are found to experience a wage decrease immediately on return toemployment but soon catch up with non-mothers. In contrast, mothers taking longerleave periods experience a longer-lasting wage penalty. In short, while the existence of amotherhood gap seems universal, the magnitude and duration of the effect motherhoodhas on wages varies from country to country.Explanations for the motherhood pay gapThe main reasons for the motherhood pay gap can be located in one of threeanalytical frameworks – rationalist economics, sociological and comparativeinstitutionalist.The rationalist economics approach emphasizes the following factors: (1) reduced“human capital”, or knowledge, subsequent to labour market interruptions or reductionsin working time, and subsequent reduced commitment (since women are more likely toface employment interruptions, they are less inclined to seek out training or higher-paidpositions with more responsibility); and (2) employment in family-friendly jobs whichare lower-paying (after having children women often opt into part-time jobs, and mayhave little option but to accept jobs with less responsibility).vi Conditions of Work and Employment Series No. 57The sociological approach argues instead that: (1) some employers may build intotheir hiring and promotion decisions traditional stereotypical expectations of the burdensimposed by families on mothers’ time and energy; (2) the absence of child care and otherwork–family measures is a market failure (women are not promoted because investmentin child-care services, flexible working arrangements etc. is missing and vice versa); and(3) undervaluation of women’s work means that skill and experience in femaledominatedoccupations and workplaces tend to be rewarded unfairly.The comparative institutionalist approach emphasizes the following: (1) countriesprovide very different opportunities for mothers to access decent wages through specificpolicies to support care and work (e.g. child-care provision, maternity and paternityleave); (2) a country’s tax and benefit system exerts a strong influence on a mother’sstatus as economically dependent (on a spouse) or as an independent citizen; (3) the sizeof the motherhood wage penalty varies with the degree of inequality in a country’soverall wage structure; (4) the cultural and family context matters, especially in countrieswith less developed formal policy architectures; and (5) implementation gaps are a keyarea of concern, particularly in developing countries, where women work informally orunder precarious contracts in the formal sector which exclude them from statutoryprovisions related to leave, job protection and so on.How to address the motherhood pay gapThe magnitude of the motherhood pay gap and the relevance of some of the abovementionedexplanations depend on the constellation of work–family laws, policies andmeasures, labour market institutions, gender stereotypes and societal expectations inplace in a given country. Nonetheless, there are some general policy options which canbe used to address it: Job-protected parental leave of adequate duration and with income-related payfunded by social insurance or public funds for both women and men, withspecific provision for fathers. High accessibility of affordable and quality child-care services and flexibleworking arrangements for all workers. Tax and benefit rules which treat mothers as economically independent adults. Addressing the implementation gap in work−family and social policies. Preventing and eliminating discrimination based on maternity and familyresponsibilities and creating a family-friendly workplace cultureRight to regulated and flexible working hours, including the upgrading of part-timejobs and promoting access to them for women and men.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationGeneva
PublisherInternational Labour Organization
Number of pages80
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2015

Publication series

NameConditions of Work and Employment Series


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