6 March 2015 | Report/Paper

The motherhood pay gap: A review of the issues, theory and international evidence


The Motherhood Pay Gap report from the International Labour Organization provides a detailed review of the issues, theory and evidences around the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers,the latter defined in most econometric studies as women without dependent children. It also measures the pay gap between mothers and fathers. The motherhood pay gap is distinct from the gender pay gap, which measures the pay gap between all women and all men in the workforce.

The report notes that, while there is a considerable international literature on the motherhood gap, differences both in methodologies and in how mothers, non-mothers and fathers are defined using available data create difficulties in comparing estimates. Moreover, in many countries, the data are often unsuitable for analysis, typically because the questions posed in surveys make it difficult to establish the identity of a child’s mother or father (particularly in developing countries where the nuclear family is less common). Nevertheless, many studies draw on international harmonised pay and employment data which provide this report with a useful basis for cross-country comparison, and others provide informative trend analyses for single countries.



  • Acknowledgements
  • Executive Summary
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Measurement issues and highlights of the international empirical evidence
    • What is the motherhood pay gap? Measurement issues
    • International empirical evidence of wage penalties for mothers
    • Evidence of wage premiums for fathers
  • Part II: Debating the methodological issues
    • Six core methodological issues for understanding motherhood pay gaps
    • Main explanations for the motherhood pay gap
  • Part IV: Investigating the impact of the institutional environment
    • The impact of a country’s welfare system and support for working parents
    • Welfare states: The economic status of women and family systems
    • Labour market systems
  • Part V: Implications for policy and future research
    • Policy options
    • Data limitations and future research agenda
  • Bibliography




The report finds that the main reasons for the motherhood pay gap can be located in one of three analytical frameworks – rationalist economics, sociological and comparative institutionalist.

  • The rationalist economics approach emphasises the following factors: (1) reduced human capital”, or knowledge, subsequent to labour market interruptions or reductions in working time, and subsequent reduced commitment (since women are more likely to face employment interruptions, they are less inclined to seek out training or higher-paid positions with more responsibility); and (2) employment in family-friendly jobs which are lower-paying (after having children women often opt into part-time jobs, and may have little option but to accept jobs with less responsibility).
  • The sociological approach argues instead that: (1) some employers may build into their hiring and promotion decisions traditional stereotypical expectations of the burdens imposed by families on mothers’ time and energy; (2) the absence of child care and other work–family measures is a market failure (women are not promoted because investment in child-care services, flexible working arrangements etc. is missing and vice versa); and (3) undervaluation of women’s work means that skill and experience in female-dominated occupations and workplaces tend to be rewarded unfairly.
  • The comparative institutionalist approach emphasises the following: (1) countries provide very different opportunities for mothers to access decent wages through specific policies to support care and work (e.g. child-care provision, maternity and paternity leave); (2) a country’s tax and benefit system exerts a strong influence on a mother’s status as economically dependent (on a spouse) or as an independent citizen; (3) the size of the motherhood wage penalty varies with the degree of inequality in a country’s overall wage structure; (4) the cultural and family context matters, especially in countries with less developed formal policy architectures; and (5) implementation gaps are a key area of concern, particularly in developing countries, where women work informally or under precarious contracts in the formal sector which exclude them from statutory provisions related to leave, job protection and so on.

The report highlights that magnitude of the motherhood pay gap and the relevance of some of the abovementioned explanations depend on the constellation of work–family laws, policies and measures, labour market institutions, gender stereotypes and societal expectations in place in a given country. However, some general policy options recommended to address the motherhood pay gap include:

  • Job-protected parental leave of adequate duration and with income-related pay funded by social insurance or public funds for both women and men, with specific provision for fathers.
  • High accessibility of affordable and quality child-care services and flexible working arrangements for all workers.
  • Tax and benefit rules which treat mothers as economically independent adults.
  • Addressing the implementation gap in work−family and social policies.
  • Preventing and eliminating discrimination based on maternity and family responsibilities and creating a family-friendly workplace culture.
  • The right to regulated and flexible working hours, including the upgrading of part-time jobs and promoting access to them for women and men.

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