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"Child penalty" – how having children affects women's careers

In a world where gender inequality is already prevalent in social environments and labor markets, the decision to have children further tilts the scale against women.

While parenthood brings immense joy to both mothers and fathers, it also comes with costs. The demands of childbirth and childcare consume significant resources, including finances, time, energy, and physical and mental health. Consequently, having children significantly impacts both parents' career development and success in the labor market. However, sharing these costs is uneven between men and women, contributing to gender inequality in the labor market.

Gender inequality in the labor market

The status of women in society has improved significantly in both developed and developing countries in the latter half of the 20th century. Women now have higher levels of education and deeper involvement in economic, political, and social activities. However, despite advancements, the gender gap in success in the labor market remains substantial and persistent.

Data from Our World in Data shows that women still earn significantly lower wages than men in many countries. The disparity in wages between men and women is considerable, reaching nearly 34% in countries like South Korea. Surprisingly, this gap persists at around 14-16% even in Nordic welfare states like Norway and Denmark.

Moreover, women are underrepresented in top managerial positions worldwide, with only about 18% holding such roles. This percentage is even lower in regions like the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

The child penalty

Recent economic studies have highlighted parenthood as a significant driver of persistent gender inequality. Although men and women enter the labor market with nearly equivalent incomes, gender disparities begin to emerge during parenthood, widening over time.

This phenomenon, known as the "child penalty," demonstrates how motherhood adversely affects women's labor market outcomes compared to men's, notably impacting income levels.

Income decline for women after childbirth

Typically, ten years after the birth of their first child, women's income from wages is lower than men's by 21% to 61%. While men's income remains stable after childbirth, women experience significant income declines, even in countries like Denmark and Sweden, where the reductions reach 21% and 26%, respectively. These reductions are even higher in English-speaking countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, at 31% and 44%, respectively.

The question arises: why does parenthood negatively impact women's careers while having less effect on men? Understanding the mechanisms behind the economic toll of childbirth on women is crucial for designing policies to mitigate the child penalty and reduce gender inequality, acknowledging women's significant contributions to the economy and society at large.

Changes in work patterns and status

Women often alter their employment and workplace arrangements to accommodate family responsibilities after childbirth, contributing to the child penalty. Opting for part-time work, seeking flexible hours, and choosing less competitive environments for childcare convenience significantly lower women's income and career advancement opportunities compared to full-time, rigorous, and competitive positions. Additionally, the maternity leave period interrupts women's career momentum, while men typically do not experience work disruptions, even after childbirth.

Mental health toll

Recent research indicates that childbirth disproportionately affects women's mental health compared to men. Postpartum women use more antidepressants than men, reaching up to 93% in Austria and 65% in Denmark. Mental health significantly influences success in the labor market, highlighting the need for support mechanisms.

Cultural and gender role biases

Deep-rooted cultural influences and biases regarding gender roles in labor further exacerbate gender inequality. Family environments during childhood shape perceptions of gender roles in adulthood, perpetuating traditional views of women's roles in the household. Societal norms valuing women's caregiving roles over career aspirations lead to lower female labor force participation rates.

In traditional societies like those in East Asia, including Vietnam, where women are primarily viewed as homemakers, the child penalty is more pronounced compared to more gender-equitable societies. Moreover, intergenerational transmission of the child penalty within families exacerbates women's income losses, highlighting the need for cultural shifts.

Child penalty in Vietnam

Does Vietnam escape the impact of the child penalty? Examination of the Vietnamese labor market's challenges for women suggests otherwise. Despite relatively high female labor force participation rates, women still face a wage gap of approximately 10.7% compared to men. While gender inequality in Vietnam is less severe than in other countries, regional disparities reveal nuanced challenges. Urban areas like Ho Chi Minh City exhibit higher child penalties, with lower maternal employment rates than paternal ones, indicating a significant loss of female talent.

Policy suggestions

Understanding the intrinsic nature of the problem is essential for crafting effective policies to reduce gender inequality and promote women's empowerment. Policymakers must address cultural and societal biases that underpin the child penalty, recognizing women's equal value in the economy and society.

Improving women's status through cultural shifts and policy interventions requires persistent, multi-generational efforts. Short-term measures, such as educational programs emphasizing gender equality in family and societal roles, alongside supportive policies like enhanced maternity leave and childcare support, can help mitigate the child penalty and foster a more equitable society.

In conclusion, tackling the child penalty is crucial for achieving gender equality in the labor market and broader society. By recognizing and addressing women's unique challenges, we can harness their full potential for economic and social development.


  2. Kleven, Henrik, Camille Landais, Johanna Posch, Andreas Steinhauer, and Josef Zweimüller. 2019. "Child Penalties across Countries: Evidence and Explanations." AEA Papers and Proceedings, 109: 122-26.
  3. Ahammer, A., Glogowsky, U., Halla, M., & Hener, T. (2023). The parenthood penalty in mental health: Evidence from Austria and Denmark.
  4. Boelmann, B., Raute, A., & Schonberg, U. (2021). Wind of change? Cultural determinants of maternal labor supply.
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  8. Kleven, H., Landais, C., & Leite-Mariante, G. (2023). The child penalty atlas (No. w31649). National Bureau of Economic Research.
Blog post | 18 April 2024