How Parenthood and Gender Roles Increase the Wage Gap

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Last month the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a new study examining the causes of the wage gap in its member countries.

According to the study, working mothers make less, and having a child can cost a family significantly. The average gender pay gap between men and women without children is seven percent. But for couples with one or more child, that gap widens to 22 percent.

At its very core, the issue is still the sinister and usually unconscious notion that the primary “job” of women should be childrearing. Women in the workforce make less, in large part, because our society encourages us to see female workers as non-breadwinners, as secondary income earners doing a secondary job. And because all women are viewed as potential mothers whether they have children or not, all women are subject to the penalty in some way.

It’s easy to write this viewpoint off as a relic of times past or a trait of so-called unenlightened geographies. But to do so would be wrong. After all, the research was done in 2012 and OECD countries tend to have relatively high incomes globally – in other words, they are mainly “developed” economies like Australia, Italy, Japan, Norway, Turkey, and the United States.

Nor is the wage gap an idiosyncrasy of the lower end of the income range. In fact, the gap between men and women’s income levels is widest for the rich. According to the study, female top-earners make 21 percent less than male top-earners.

All this aside, the wage gap is nothing new. But what is new is the OECD’s suggestion that continuing to ignore the gap could deplete the global talent pool at a time when retirement rates are rapidly rising in these countries. It’s also wasting the vast amounts of money spent to increase the educational attainment of girls in recent decades. The report states:

“Gender inequality means not only foregoing the important contributions that women make to the economy, but also wasting years of investment in educating girls and young women. Making the most of the talent pool ensures that men and women have an equal chance to contribute both at home and in the workplace, thereby enhancing their well-being and that of society.”

Ultimately, the OECD study indicates, the wage gap could slow down economic growth at a time when businesses – from the smallest entrepreneurial venture to the largest multinational – cannot afford it.

Work/Family Tension

The OECD calls work/family tension the “heart of the employment puzzle.” For one, the study points out, in a two-parent household, the cost of child-care can be so high that one parent can become disincentivized to work at all. And the vast majority of the time, that parent is a woman. (Of course, when it comes to one-parent households, the majority of which are headed by women, work/family tension takes on a whole new meaning.)

It’s not just the cost of childcare that produces a lopsided employment structure, the OECD says. “But how people manage life at home also plays a big part in the equation. Many systems still implicitly regard childrearing as a mother’s responsibility: everywhere women are doing more unpaid work than men, regardless of whether they have full-time jobs or not.”

This has a negative impact on men as well – oftentimes, men are discouraged from taking the full length of parental leave (if it is even offered) or participating in flexible work schemes because their employer may see them as less committed to their job. After all, if society sees women as parents first and workers second, men have it the other way around.


But the report is not simply a condemnation of the restrictions caused by gender roles in the workplace. The OECD points out that these restrictions result in a real loss of dollars as well – in terms of individual productivity and GDP.

Eliminating the biases behind the wage gap would produce a more fair society, to be sure. It would also produce more competitive workforces as talented people are paid and promoted appropriately, regardless of gender.

As OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría explained at the OECD Gender Forum in Paris, “Closing the gender gap must be a central part of any strategy to create more sustainable economies and inclusive societies.”

The report says that reducing the cost of childcare would enable more women to stay in the workforce and achieve their full potential at work. It could also encourage companies to change their view of working moms – and, by extension, all women – as risky hires. Finally, hiring and retaining more women will help companies fill the jobs made available as the Baby Boomer generation retires.

Gurría continued, “The world’s population is aging and this challenge can only be mastered if all the talent available is mobilized. Governments should make further progress in the access and quality of education for all, improve tax and benefits systems, and make childcare more affordable, in order to help women contribute more to economic growth and a fairer society.”