Motherhood and the gender gap in Latin America

Gender gaps in labour supply, income, and wages are still large despite the remarkable convergence of roles of men and women in labour markets over the last century. In developed countries, the evidence points to motherhood as one of the key factors in explaining these remaining gaps. In Denmark, for instance, while motherhood explained 40% of the gender gap in income and wages in 1980, in 2017 almost 80% of the gap can be attributed to children at home.

Indeed, the arrival of the first child implies a reduction in employment for women and lower hourly wages for mothers who remain employed. In contrast, fathers show almost no changes in these dimensions. This opens long-run gender gaps that persist many years after the first child is born.

Do these results found for developed countries hold in developing regions? In a recent paper we show that, despite their differences in institutional and cultural frameworks, the basic dynamics and similar stylized facts are also present in Latin American countries.

Motherhood and labour market outcomes in Latin America

Gender gaps in Latin America are large. The labour force participation rate of women is 27 percentage points lower than that of men; women earn per hour 17% less than men with similar education and experience and occupy less than 40% of high-ranking positions. However, evidence of the role of motherhood in driving these gaps in the region is still scarce and usually not comparable across countries.

In our paper on this subject, we provide comparable evidence on the impact that the birth of the first child has on female labour outcomes in Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. Unfortunately, data limitations prevent us from including other Latin American countries in the analysis.

Our results show that becoming a mother can mean dropping out of the workforce, needing to change jobs, or reducing hours worked. This negative impact of motherhood on women’s labour supply occurs immediately after childbirth but persists in the medium and long term. For the four countries studied, nearly one in five women drops out of the labour force completely. This result holds even five years after the first child is born when employment rates of mothers are between 17–20% lower than the year before giving birth. Evidence for Chile suggests a 16% reduction persisting 10 years after childbirth. Since fathers’ labour outcomes remain unaffected, motherhood creates a gender gap in the labour market that persists over time, causing losses to average women’s lifetime earnings that men do not suffer.

The quest for flexibility: paying a high price

Beyond affecting participation in the labour market, motherhood also favours occupational choices towards more flexible jobs. Part-time employment rises by 16–29% in the medium run and 43% in the long run. Motherhood also triggers an increase in self-employment and labour informality among working women. In the medium run, self-employment of mothers increases between 17–42%, while informality rises between 16–50%.

These occupational choices — part-time jobs, self-employment, informal jobs — usually come at a high cost for mothers. Not only do these choices imply lower earnings, but also these jobs are characterized by lack of social security, increased job instability, and weaker career development prospects. In return, they offer more time flexibility.  

Why are women willing to trade the present and future benefits of better employment for flexibility? Based on evidence for 18 Latin American countries (SEDLAC) we show that gender norms and family policies play a key role in shaping women’s involvement in the labour market. In societies with more egalitarian views and stronger family policies — such as childcare and maternity leave — the labour market outcomes of women are more similar, regardless of whether they become mothers.

Fostering policies that promote co-responsibility at home and free up time for women to balance work and family may go a long way in promoting mothers’ involvement in the labour market and in improving the quality of female employment. In Latin America, there is still much room to advance in this direction.


The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.