Gender pay equity in advanced countries: the role of parenthood and policies.

Author:Misra, Joya
Position:Entrenched Challenges - Report - Essay

Despite dramatic changes in women's representation in employment, the gender gap in pay remains substantial in most advanced, wealthy countries. Our analyses show the important role that parenthood plays in explaining the gender wage gap. While childless women's wages are converging with that of childless men, mothers' wages are substantially lower than fathers' wages in many countries. Fathers earn bonuses relative to childless men, while mothers suffer penalties relative to childless women. Even though the gender gap for childless workers has been declining over time, the motherhood penalty remains stable, controlling for a variety of factors such as education and experience. We show how the gender gap, motherhood penalties, and fatherhood bonuses differ across a range of wealthy countries. Furthermore, we discuss how maternity leaves, paternity leaves, parental leaves, and publicly subsidized childcare can help address these inequalities by helping parents--both men and women engage in employment and caregiving. Finally, we argue that policies need to target wage inequality not only by gender, but also by parenthood.


Despite the increase in employment numbers and earnings for women globally over the past several decades, there remains a persistent and substantial gender wage gap, with women earning less than men. This gap is prevalent across a broad range of advanced, wealthy countries in Oceania, Europe, and North America. For example, as of 2010, women with full-time employment in the United States earned approximately 77 percent of what their male peers earned. (1) Although the gap has narrowed--that figure was 60 percent in 1960--U.S. gender wage parity would not occur until 2056 at that rate of change. (2) Scholars in disciplines ranging from economics, public policy, and sociology have shown that women's earnings have increased relative to men's due to rising education levels, increased employment opportunities, and the passage of anti-discrimination legislation. Yet it is also true that the gender wage gap narrowed in a relative sense, as men's wages have fallen due to deindustrialization and the decline of labor unions?

This convergence in wages, however, primarily reflects the experience of childless men and women. Mothers continue to earn substantially less than other workers in most countries. While mothers earn significantly less than childless women with the same characteristics referred to as a motherhood penalty fathers earn somewhat more than childless men with the same characteristics referred to as a fatherhood bonus. Research shows that rather than declining over time as the gender gap has done, the motherhood penalty remains stable, controlling for factors such as education and experience. (4)

We focus on the intersection of gender and parenthood in eleven countries. Through our analysis, we found that parenthood and specifically, actual and perceived caregiver responsibilities that are entrenched in employers' perceptions and reinforced through legislation and policies, are central factors in explaining the persisting gender wage gap. Wage gaps may reflect the market value of differing levels of human capital. A woman who is less educated or has lost marketable professional experience by taking time out of the workforce receives a lower wage. Yet even controlling for those variables, research continues to find substantial differences in wages by parenthood status and gender? We first review the existing literature that has attempted to explain the persistence of motherhood penalties and fatherhood bonuses. By analyzing available earnings data from eleven advanced economies, we illustrate how parenthood contributes to the gender wage gap and how it differs across those countries. Finally, we examine some existing public policies and propose some key ones aimed at reducing the gender wage gap, specifically taking into account the notion of gendered parenthood.


In most advanced economies, mothers earn substantially less than childless women, while fathers earn somewhat more than childless men. (6) These phenomena have been termed the motherhood penalty and fatherhood bonus, respectively. In the United States, while researchers identify a 7 percent wage penalty per child, only one-third of this penalty can be attributed to the loss of work experience. (7) There are two major explanations that have been advanced to account for these outcomes. Some scholars theorize that gendered specialization in the household is a key driver of wage differentials. (8) Consider a household composed of a married man and woman. If each focuses on different household roles--with the man emphasizing paid employment and the woman emphasizing caregiving responsibilities--this might affect workplace productivity. The man may work harder and longer while the woman may work less due to her engagement in caregiving responsibilities outside of the work environment. Research finds that time spent on household tasks that are typed as "female," such as meal preparation and housekeeping, reduces the wages of both men and women. Women tend to engage in those tasks more on average. This suggests that those tasks may drive the gender wage gap. (9) A longitudinal study examining changes in women's wages over time found that the motherhood penalty is primarily realized when mothers interrupt their employment due to childcare responsibilities. (10) However, findings do not always support this specialization theory. For example, motherhood penalties in the United States vary by race and ethnicity, with white women paying the largest penalties. Yet this does not explain why Latinas do not see a motherhood penalty, despite more traditional divisions of labor among men and women in Latino households. (11)

Researchers also explore the effect of specialization on wage bonuses for men. Drawing upon some of the research mentioned above, one can theorize that only men who benefit from a partner who "specializes" in unpaid work would earn a wage bonus. For each additional hour an American wife works, her husband's wage gains reduce, which may support the idea that a heterosexual married man's higher wages are due to higher productivity. (12) Research also suggests that white and Latino men, whose families have more traditional breadwinner or caregiver divisions, do appear to earn larger fatherhood bonuses--4 percent and 8 percent, respectively. (13) Yet these effects do not hold for African-American men. (14) Employer perceptions, rather than differences in productivity, may play a role. The employers "may be less likely to view black fathers as committed breadwinners, and black men may experience less of a labor market bonus for fatherhood." (15)

Other research considers the role of employer discrimination. One study looks at a worker's race and gender and compares their employer's productivity descriptions with the employee's actual work records. The results demonstrate that some employers discriminate against women--particularly African-American women--stereotyping them as less committed or productive, even when their work records do not indicate any basis for such characterization. (16) Experimental research similarly suggests that employers stereotype mothers as less competent and committed. In a laboratory experiment carried out with undergraduate volunteers, the students assessed application materials for a mid-level marketing position; the materials established that candidates had the same credentials, experience, and productivity, but varied resumes by the first name of the worker, indicating race and gender, and listed that they volunteered in a community organization or for a parent-teacher organization. The researchers found that those who were believed to be mothers were less likely to get positions, and of those who were, they were offered lower salaries--7.9 percent less than perceived childless women and 8.6 percent less than fathers. (17)

The same study carried out an audit of actual employers advertising employment vacancies to see how they responded to applications. Some of the employee applications included a cover letter mentioning that the potential employee was relocating to the city, while others noted that they were specifically relocating with their families to the city. Women who mentioned families were half as likely to be interviewed than women who did not mention families, while men who mentioned...

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