Global Evidence on Childbearing and Women’s Employment

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This figure is a scatter plot titled, Effect of First Childbirth on Gender Gap in Employment. The y-axis is labeled, decrease in the employment rate of women relative to men, percentage points. It ranges from positive 10 to negative 40. The top of y-axis is negative 40 and ascends to positive 10, increasing in increments of 10. The x-axis is labeled, Log GDP per capita (approximate dollar amount). It ranges from 6 to 11 in log terms or 403 to 58,252 in dollar amount.  There is a best fit line for the scatter plot that shows a direct correlation between a decrease in the employment rate of women relative to men and an increase in GDP per capita. It starts at the bottom left of the figure at 0 and ascends towards the top right, finishing at near negative.  The note on the figure reads, Countries have been grouped into 15 equal-sized bins of GDP per capita and y-axis values show averages across all countries in each bin. Blue shaded area represents 95% confidence intervals. The source line reads, Source: Researchersʼ estimates using microdata from 134 countries and GDP data from the World Bank.

Gender gaps in labor market outcomes vary greatly around the world. In The Child Penalty Atlas (NBER Working Paper 31649), Henrik KlevenCamille Landais, and Gabriel Leite-Mariante examine whether the large differences in gender gaps can be explained by differences in the impact of family formation — marriage and childbirth — on women relative to men. The researchers focus on gender gaps in employment, defining the “child penalty” as the impact of the birth of a first child on the gap in employment rates between women and men.

As incomes rise and economies transition from subsistence farming toward salaried work in industry and services, childbearing has a larger negative effect on women’s employment.

The study includes data from 134 countries representing more than 95 percent of the world’s population. It primarily draws on cross-sectional survey data. The researchers find that child penalties are present in most countries of the world, but that their magnitude varies widely, even among neighboring countries and among regions within the same country. In undeveloped, primarily agricultural economies, the birth of a child has little effect on gender inequality in employment rates. But as incomes rise and employment moves from subsistence farming toward more structured industry and service sectors, childbirth is increasingly associated with women’s absence from the labor force.

Having a child in Denmark reduces a woman’s likelihood of holding a job by 14 percent, and the effects are also small in other Scandinavian countries. The impact is much larger in most central European countries; it is 50 percent, for example, in the Czech Republic. The impact is sizable in southern Europe but with sharp divides. It is twice as large in Spain — where gender gaps are large regardless of parental status — as in Portugal. The persistence of child penalties after the first childbirth also varies among European countries. In the Czech Republic, for example, the penalty drops from nearly 100 percent just after birth to only 20 percent after 10 years, while in Denmark the penalty stays at 14 percent following parenthood.

In contrast to the cross-country variation in Europe, the impact of childbearing on Latin American women is broadly similar across the region, with a 35 to 50 percent gap that persists long after giving birth. Only a few countries in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Haiti, display smaller and less persistent gaps.

The data from African nations highlight the impact of economic development. New mothers in Central Africa, where subsistence economies dominate, experience little change in work patterns compared with men. By contrast, in Morocco the gap is 41 percent and in South Africa, 28 percent.

Asian nations exemplify the rural/urban divide. The child penalty in Beijing is 12 percent, compared with 4 percent in China as a whole; the penalty in Ho Chi Minh City is 25 percent compared with just 1 percent in Vietnam as a whole. Rural jobs are more likely to be flexible and family friendly than more structured, salaried positions in cities. There are also very large differences in the impact of childbirth across the Asian continent: child penalties are very large in the Middle East, South Asia, and Japan, while they are modest in Southeast Asia and China.

The arrival of children explains most of the gender gap in employment in North America, Europe, and Australia. It also explains a large share of the gender gap in Latin America. Elsewhere, factors that predate the arrival of children — including marriage, education, and cultural norms — appear to play a greater role.

— Steve Maas

Camille Landais acknowledges financial support from the European Research Council consolidator grant #101001464, from Pivotal Ventures, and from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.