HomeLearning CenterThe Gender Pay Gap Is a Culture Problem

The Gender Pay Gap Is a Culture Problem

Originally published by Jessica Grose for The New York Times

American women made significant progress toward closing the gender pay gap in the second half of the 20th century, but that gap has barely budged over the past two decades. In 2022, according to Pew Research, “American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. That was about the same as in 2002, when they earned 80 cents to the dollar.”

In a country where women are now a (slight) majority of the college-educated labor force and the annual earnings median for college degree holders is 55 percent more than that of those with high school diplomas, the stickiness of this gap is frustrating. While there are several factors at play, one of the key contributors to the gap is what’s known as the motherhood penalty and the corresponding fatherhood premium: Women’s pay decreases when they have children, while men’s pay increases.

This dynamic isn’t just an American phenomenon. “In general, women don’t recover. They don’t catch back up to men, even many years after first childbirth,” said Henrik Kleven, the lead author of a 2023 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “The Child Penalty Atlas,” in which he and his co-authors, Camille Landais and Gabriel Leite-Mariante, reviewed wage gap data from 134 countries. “Now, that basic pattern is true essentially everywhere, but the quantitative magnitudes of the effects vary greatly across countries,” he told me recently.

Somewhat surprisingly to me, his research, which builds on years of earlier scholarship, suggests that a country’s family policy has relatively little to do with how big the parenthood pay gap is. A society’s culture and norms seem to be much bigger factors in how big the motherhood penalty is: The more egalitarian the culture, the lower the gap.

Kleven told me that sometimes countries that seem superficially similar in terms of income levels, development, family policy and geography have very different pay gaps. (We see the same interplay in American states, with the child penalty 21 percent in Vermont and 61 percent in Utah.) Even countries right next to each other can have wildly different gaps. Spain’s child pay gap is much bigger than Portugal’s, and Germany’s is bigger than Denmark’s. Central European countries have “some of the highest child penalties we see anywhere in the world,” Kleven said. Scandinavian countries have some of the lowest.

Let’s look at Austria. It has generous family leave policies and child care subsidies, especially by American standards. But in a 2022 working paper, “Do Family Policies Reduce Gender Inequality? Evidence From 60 Years of Policy Experimentation,” Kleven and his co-authors’ analysis showed “that the enormous expansions of parental leave and child care subsidies have had virtually no impact on gender convergence.” Despite an influx of Austrian women into the work force in the past 50 or so years, the relatively large child penalty can be at least partly explained by gender attitudes and norms.

According to data from the 2012 wave of the International Social Survey Program that was analyzed in the paper, more than 60 percent of Austrians agreed that when a mother works for pay, her young children probably suffer. By comparison, those in the more egalitarian Scandinavian countries felt differently. Fewer than 20 percent of Danes agreed that children suffer when their mothers work outside the home. Though that data is more than a decade old, those kinds of attitudes die hard and are backed up by newer research.

Speaking of Danes: A new paper from economists at Lund University, the University of Amsterdam and Aarhus University found that for a subset of Danish women, the motherhood penalty disappeared in the long run and, in limited circumstances, turned into a premium. The paper followed the earnings trajectory of more than 18,000 child-free women who received in vitro fertilization treatment in Denmark, where, Time magazine reported in 2019, “the cost of three cycles of I.V.F. for a first child is covered by the tax-financed public health service” for women up to the age of 40. The study’s authors then compared the women who had successful first-round I.V.F. treatments and ended up with children and the women who didn’t.

The women who had successful I.V.F. treatments had a near-term child penalty, and their earnings dropped below those of the women with unsuccessful treatments. “By Year 10,” though, according to the study, “successfully treated women earn as much as unsuccessfully treated women. And by Year 15, successfully treated women earn slightly more. This earnings advantage persists throughout the remainder of the study period.” Men’s earnings weren’t affected, regardless of whether they became parents.

Back to News