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Motherhood, Stereotypes and Social Norms are the Main Causes of the Gender Gap in the Labour Market

  • The latest IEB Report presented in the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Barcelona takes contributions from Lídia Farré (University of Barcelona), Alessandra Casarico (Bocconi University) and José Ignacio Conde-Ruiz (Complutense University of Madrid)


Barcelona, 4 March 2020.- Motherhood is one of the primary causes of the gender gap in the labour market, and the solution is implementing measures to mitigate its effect. However, stereotypes and social norms act as elements that make transition enormously difficult. This has been reflected in the studies presented by the Barcelona Institute of Economics in its latest IEB Report, stemming from the awareness that eliminating the gap in the labour market should become a priority for economic policy. This is particularly relevant in an increasingly ageing society where the proportion of the working-age population is falling, and will be a key driver of growth and productivity.

The existence of social norms regarding what is appropriate for men and for women to do emerges as a leading candidate to explain gender inequality. This is evident in the studies presented. There is a call to challenge these social norms, such as those that dictate that women should be the ones who take care of children. In this regard, one of the studies, by the UB professor Lídia Farré, shows a significant positive correlation between the child penalty (in terms of income) and the proportion of respondents who agree, or strongly agree, with the following statement: mothers have to stay at home until the children are old enough to go to school.

Another finding referred to in the IEB Report (link) analyses and compares the child penalty for same sex couples (both men and women) and for heterosexual couples. It is noted that in same sex female couples (as opposed to heterosexual couples), the large drop in income of the partner who gives birth disappears after a few years. Same sex male couples do not experience a child penalty. These findings corroborate the importance of social norms for gender inequality.

Realistic Solutions

While it is clear that the work to be done on addressing stereotypes and social norms is immense, the studies which form part of the IEB Report (link) propose concrete solutions and measures to close the gender gap. These are solutions aimed improving work-life balance, promoting co-responsibility between the two partners, and putting in place measures whose objective is to correct the problem of the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions and to encourage promotion within organizations.

Some of the measures arising from the research would be: universalise education from 0 to 3 years, extend the duration of paternity leave (the data show that countries with greater participation of women in the labour market tend to have a more equitable distribution of domestic chores) and have the flexibility to facilitate the balance for both men and women. Finally, measures that can be applied in the private sphere are very important, starting with our own individual behavior to challenge stereotypes and change social norms. The gender roles that today’s children are exposed to can contribute to shifting social norms in the future.

The Quota Policy

Many countries have started to consider the possibility of introducing the quota policy. Italy, France, and Germany have recently joined Nordic countries—pioneers in the implementation of mandatory quotas for female representation on the board of directors. The use of transitional gender quotas can increase female representation in positions of authority and break traditional male networks.

However, it is true that gender quotas are a controversial political tool. The main objection to the use of this measure is that it does not adhere to meritocracy—something that the professor at Bocconi University in Milan and member of CESifo (Munich), Alessandra Casarico, disputes with data and fundamentals in her study. She shows in her research that effective policies do exist to promote the political empowerment of women without undermining the quality of representatives.

The selection process in companies or organizations poses another area to examine, and is also be applicable to promotions. An emblematic example is included in the IEB Report citing evidence on the impact of the introduction of ‘blind’ auditions. In the 1970s, American orchestras reviewed their audition policies in an effort to avoid discrimination. They set up ‘blind’ auditions where candidates play instruments behind a screen to hide the candidate’s identity. This change caused a dramatic increase in the number of female musicians in the top five American orchestras, from 5% in 1970 to 25% in 1997.

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