Vancouver School of Economics expert Kevin Milligan sheds light on the employment gap between mothers and fathers
With women such as GM CEO Mary Barra and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer at the helm of major Fortune 500 corporations, it would be easy to conclude the gender wars have been waged and won. But as UBC economist Kevin Milligan notes, we still have not achieved gender parity in the workplace, including for mothers and fathers who return to work following parental leave.
How big is the current gender gap in employment?
In Canada, among parents of young children, mothers work less than fathers. When children are between the ages of zero and 10, mothers work 2.9 years fewer than fathers on average. That gap actually shrank a lot in the 1970s and ’80s, in Canadian terms, but flattened out in the 1990s.
Why is it important to close the gap?
Some people hold strongly to a goal of gender equity. If you want to have a workplace and society that has gender equity, having a smaller mother-father gap is a part of that. Another reason you might want to close that gap, even if you didn’t have a strong preference for gender equity, is for basic economic efficiency.
It doesn’t make sense to assign people less productive activities. If you happen to be a woman who is not very good in the home and society forces you into that role, then that’s not an efficient match. And some men might be naturally good housekeepers.
It’s worth noting that in one-third of Canadian families today, the mother earns more than the father. That’s a really big number. It’s really increased since the 1970s, and that’s an important trend. Maybe that’s something that might affect the employment gap in the future.
What can be done to close that gap?
Parental leave is something people like to bring to the table, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that after the leave is over there is any effect on closing the gap.
The other policy people like to talk a lot about is subsidized childcare. When you look at the $5-a-day subsidized childcare in Quebec, you find that it does start to close the gap in the years zero to four, when the child is actually in childcare. It also carries on through ages five to 10. As it turns out, it only has a fairly small impact on the gap—only half a year. So it does move it in the direction of closing it, but it’s not going to close it all the way.
The other kind of thing you can think about is social and cultural attitudes. Those tend to change slowly, but they do change. My father, for example, didn’t change one diaper, and I don’t think he was out of place for his time. For my siblings and me, who were born in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s very normal for fathers to change diapers. Just in one generation, there’s been a change. Perhaps that’s slow and we should hurry along cultural trends, but that suggests that they can change and they do change.