WeLaR > News > Having children deepens gender inequality in EU labour market, WeLaR study shows 

Having children deepens gender inequality in EU labour market, WeLaR study shows 

Decisions to have children continue to penalise women in Europe, exacerbating the gap between fathers’ and mothers’ position in the workforce and their compensation, a new paper by economists from the EU-funded Project WeLaR shows.


“When women become mothers, their labour market performance deteriorates relative to those who remain childless: this is what we call the motherhood penalty,” says Cristiano Perugini, a professor of public economics at the University of Perugia and co-author of the study. “We find that in Europe, women are still penalised for becoming parents, while fathers are not.”


The study, which analysed data from 23 countries, finds that after giving birth, female employees typically reduce the time they spend on professional activities. On average, mothers decrease their paid work by an hour a day if they have one child, or two hours if they have more children. By contrast, fathers’ time spent on paid work remains roughly the same.


Researchers found that even in dual-earner couples, the division of housework and childcare still follows traditional gender roles, with wives taking on a larger share of unpaid work. Typically, wives are responsible for approximately 60% of household chores and nearly 70% of childcare. A notable exception is Finland, where married couples share their housework and childcare responsibilities more evenly.


“Since women already face inequalities in the labour market, less time spent on paid work only worsens their position,” says Maryna Tverdostup an economist at wiiw and co-author of the study. “Becoming a mother means progressing more slowly in your career, and earning less.”


The authors also show that parenthood is a significant driver of the gender wage gap. While the gap within couples with no children is only 5.3%, it triples for couples with one child (15%), and widens nearly fivefold for couples with more than one child (24%). Southern EU countries exhibit the widest gaps in labour force participation and hourly wages, while northern ones have the smallest differences.


Policies at play

The researchers also examined the extent to which various welfare policies can minimise the motherhood penalty. The evidence suggests that measures that increase access to childcare facilities, promote work-family reconciliation, and encourage gender-balanced parenting can help reduce gender disparities in labour market participation and hours worked. Similarly, extending the length and generosity of paternity leave can also help keep mothers in the labour market.


Contrary to expectations, higher budgetary spending on family benefits, and early education and care services widens the gap between full-time employment rates of male and female workers. The researchers suggest that more generous family benefits increase household disposable income, which in turn decreases women’s incentives to participate in employment.


However, while such measures are important in supporting higher levels of labour market participation and employment, neither succeeded in closing the pay gap between mothers and fathers.

Piotr Lewandowski, Cristiano Perugini, Fabrizio Pompei, Laurène Thil, Maryna Tverdostup and  Wojciech Szymczak (2024) Fertility, household models and labour market outcomes in EU countries. An analysis of the gender gap in parenthood penalty and the moderating role of family policies. (Deliverable 3.2). Leuven: WeLaR project 101061388.

The paper is available here.

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