A policy of longer maternity leave is not enough to protect women from disadvantage

The length of maternity leave has direct impacts on critical gender equality outcomes such as women’s employment and lifetime earnings. However, there are different perspectives on the most appropriate duration of maternity leave and how it may impact these outcomes. There is no definite consensus on this important policy question.

When leave is too short, mothers may not feel ready to return to work. Conversely, a long absence from the workplace may break women’s ties to the labour market. A longer maternity leave may also increase the risk of discrimination against female workers of childbearing age by employers.

In a recent UNU-WIDER study, we used a policy change in Viet Nam as a natural experiment to study this issue. Viet Nam extended the length of national mandated maternity leave in 2012 —from 4 to 6 months— and we were able to track how this impacted women’s labour market outcomes using the Viet Nam Household Living Standards Survey.

While proponents of shorter maternity leave periods often argue that longer leave periods reduce new mothers’ chances of returning to the labour market, our findings show that a longer maternity leave did not affect the level of women’s participation in the labour market. The gender employment gap in the formal sector even narrowed slightly for women of childbearing age without infant children. We did, however, find clear evidence that a longer maternity leave period may have increased discrimination against women with infants in the hiring process and we found clear evidence that women with infants have lower incomes since the new law came into effect.  

Having more children pushes women to work, but informally

In Viet Nam, both parents in a family with children need to work to maintain living conditions. In general, children in the household do not create barriers to Vietnamese women entering the labour force, they may even motivate them to work. Across all child age groups (0–1 (G1), 1–4 (G2), and 5–14 (G3)) more than 80% of women with children participate in the labour force. And when the family has more than one child in these age groups (G5, G6, G7), women’s labour participation is even higher, reaching almost 90%. However, the more children a woman has, the less likely she participates in waged jobs and formal jobs (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Source: Le and Ngoc, 2021. WIDER Working Paper 171/2021 'The gender employment gap: the effects of extended maternity leave policy in Viet Nam'. 

The trend of greater informality becomes more pronounced when women have three children in all these age groups. Women with more children spend more time caring and transporting children to school, so they tend to choose informal jobs with flexible schedules or part-time jobs to balance household tasks.

Longer maternity leave, lower incomes

ILO statistics show that in most countries the gender pay gap is positive: in general, women earn less than men. Using VHLSS data for groups of waged workers, our analysis shows that women in Viet Nam have lower monthly incomes than men do for all groups. On average, they earn around 24% less than their male counterparts. Moreover, we find evidence that the earnings gap increased by 11.6 percentage points for women with infants, from 24% less than men to 35.6% less than men, after the maternity leave period was extended. Meanwhile, the gender income gap for other groups of women is not influenced.

This phenomenon can be partly explained as follows:

According to Vietnam Labor Code 2012, female workers on maternity leave will receive maternity allowance from the Social Insurance Fund equal to their average monthly salary reported to social insurance over the six months before taking maternity leave. But it is quite common in Vietnamese companies to divide the monthly wage for employees into several types of salary to reduce the amount companies must pay for social insurance and unemployment insurance. This means that most women on maternity leave will receive an allowance smaller than their actual salary.  

However, this does not explain why maternity leave allowances decreased (relative male salaries) after 2012 and whether or not the decrease is related to the extension of maternity leave or other factors. More specific studies are needed on this issue to explore appropriate policy implications.

Longer maternity leave, mixed stories in industries

A common narrative is that extended maternity leave can be a double-edged sword for women. On the one hand, it protects women in terms of employment rights and wages after maternity leave. However, the law is unlikely to protect women from discriminatory attitudes by employers in recruitment and promotion. Newspapers tell of women who have suffered various forms of maternity discrimination, such as job loss, finding their positions replaced, and/or being overlooked for promotion, because employers consider their pregnancy to be a burden to the organization.

In Viet Nam, the ILO found that maternity leave may result in discrimination against women particularly in terms of their prospects for promotion. These findings suggest that employers prefer not to recruit women who have or plan to have children in the near future, fearing that their reproductive role could affect the company’s costs and performance. Many interviewees witnessed their co-workers being fired upon returning to work after giving birth or being placed in positions with lower salaries.

Figure 2

Source: Le and Ngoc, 2021. WIDER Working Paper 171/2021 'The gender employment gap: the effects of extended maternity leave policy in Viet Nam'. 

Despite all these warnings, our research shows that the extended maternity leave policy did not increase the gender employment gap in general. Furthermore, the gap slightly declined for women without infants in formal jobs. However, we find that gaps differ markedly across industries, and clear evidence of a wider gender employment gap for women with infants (see Figure 2).

This could imply that the maternity leave extension has increased inequality between women with young children and those without young children, but more research is needed. For example, the relevant data from industries can be used to investigate more deeply the factors that influence the role of maternity leave policies on companies hiring and pay culture, especially as it relates to women’s employment and gender equality in those industries.


Tu Thi Ngoc Le is Head of Office of Research Affairs and International Relations, Hoa Sen University.

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.