VoxEU Column Labour Markets Gender

Gender role norms and mothers' labour supply

Despite a significant reduction in gender differences in the labour market over the last 40 years, they are still present in most advanced economies and do not appear likely to vanish soon. This column analyses the impact of culture, defined by women’s gender role attitudes, on maternal labour market decisions. It finds that social pressure is at least as strong as social learning in influencing labour market behaviour. Once these channels are accounted for, there is no direct effect of peers’ gender identity norms on labour force participation. Disseminating detailed statistics on female labour market outcomes and work attitudes may prove to be a cost-effective way to promote labour market participation, especially among less-educated mothers.

Do gender role norms affect women’s labour market outcomes? The simple answer is yes. The interesting and important next step is to understand how this comes about.

In the last forty years, several governments around the world have attempted to close the economic inequality between men and women. By the start of the 21st century, most high-income countries had put into effect a host of generous and virtually gender-neutral policies and family benefits, with the multiple goals of gender equality in the labour market and a healthy work-life balance. Reduction of gender imbalances are at the core of the UN agenda, which declared Gender Equality among the key Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Special attention has been devoted to mothers. A lot of research in fact has highlighted that a large and persistent part of the gender inequality in the labour market can be explained by the arrival of children, which causes women to take career interruptions for caregiving and, upon return, to be more likely to work part-time (Bertrand et al. 2010). As a result, nearly all OECD countries have implemented policies aimed at reducing the negative impacts of children on women's careers. 

Despite these policy initiatives and decades of progress for mothers, and despite several useful debates among policy makers and social scientists on how to implement and fine-tune those policies in many advanced economies (Olivetti and Petrongolo 2017; see also the contributions in the 2020 Oxford Review of Economic Policy issue on gender economics), we have witnessed a slowing down of gender convergence in high-income countries, and sizable gaps remain in most indicators of labour market success.

In this debate, one dimension that has received only limited attention is the role played by culture. It has long been shown that culture affects a wide range of economic behaviours, from the accumulation of social capital and trust to entrepreneurship and savings, and from school and neighbourhood choices to female labour supply and fertility (Bisin and Verdier 2011). 

We know that inherited gender norms are a key determinant of women’s labour market outcomes (Fernández 2011). We also know that peers have a strong influence on women’s labour market decisions (Nicoletti et al. 2018). Related to this debate, the recent Vox column by Andreoni et al. (2021) discusses the importance of social tipping points and the evolution of social norms. An important question is to understand how these two dimensions of culture – the slow-moving component inherited through intergenerational transmissions and the fast-moving component that operates through social interactions – combine to affect women’s labour market decisions.

Cultural norms (or attitudes and values), especially gender role norms, may influence female labour market behaviour in a number of ways. One channel is through information or social learning. Some women may be uncertain about the effect of market work on their children’s wellbeing, the quality of their family relationships, and, more generally, their work-life balance. They may therefore look to same-sex adults (such as their own mothers) and to peers for valuable information (Fernández 2013). Another channel is social pressure or conformity. Some women may perceive to receive a boost to their utility if they make labour market decisions that conform to the social norms defining their own cultural identity and self-image, even if these are in opposition to the mainstream’s and may even imply pecuniary penalties in the labour market (Akerlof and Kranton 2010).

In a recent study (Cavapozzi et al. 2021), we analyse the impact of culture, defined by women’s gender role attitudes, on maternal labour market decisions. We unpack social norms by exploring the role played by peers through their gender identity and examine labour market participation, number of hours worked, and the intra-household share of paid hours worked by women. Our focus is on the response of young mothers with dependent children, due to the policy relevance of this group of women.

Using data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study from 2010 to 2014, we find that a woman whose peers have more progressive (gender-egalitarian) attitudes is more likely to work and has a greater intra-household share of market hours compared to her counterparts with more traditional peers. The magnitude of the effects is large. A one standard deviation increase in peers’ gender role norms leads to a nine percentage point increase in the probability of working (representing a 13% increase on average) and to a two percentage point increase in the share of paid work within the household (a 9% increase on average). We find, instead, no evidence of an impact on hours worked.

Interestingly, it is less educated women who drive most of the observed effects. Although on average they are less likely to work, low-education women may offset about one quarter of their employment gap if they have progressive peers, that is, their peers have progressive gender identities. If labour force participation is to be encouraged among less-educated mothers, therefore, promoting gender equal norms might be an effective tool. 

To do this, however, we need to know more about the mechanisms behind our finding. We make progress on this issue by relying on the two channels mentioned above: conformity (or social pressure) and information (or social learning). In particular, the former channel works through the influence that peers’ gender role values have on the gender role attitudes of every woman. The latter channel operates mainly through the employment decisions of peers (although these may be driven also by conformity considerations). Peers’ gender role values affect peers’ employment rate, which in turn may have a spillover effect on women. Figure 1 exemplifies our reasoning. 

Figure 1 Decomposition of the total effect of peers’ gender role attitudes on a woman’s employment


Our results suggest that each of mediated effects – peers’ gender role effects and peers’ spillover effects on employment – can explain about half of the total effect, suggesting that social pressure is at least as strong as social learning. We also find that, once these two channels are accounted for, there is no direct effect of peers’ gender identity norms on labour force participation. 

Given these results, disseminating detailed statistics on female labour market outcomes and work attitudes may prove to be a cost-effective way to promote labour market participation, especially among lower educated mothers. Such a dissemination could expedite both social learning and conformity processes, accelerating the trends in female labour market participation and facilitating the shift towards more gender-egalitarian norms. Part of this dissemination is carried out already by government-run statistical agencies worldwide and could be included in the curriculum for personal, social, health and economic education across all primary and secondary schools. The part that is not routinely performed refers to statistics on gender role attitudes, which nonetheless could be readily computed from existing representative surveys. Advances in data analytics can only make this information diffusion easier and cheaper. Publicising group behaviours avoids personal data disclosure, which is known to potentially impede the adaptation of standards to changes in norms, and may increase pro-social compliance.


Akerlof, G A and R E Kranton (2010), Identity economics: How our identities shape our work, wages, and well-being. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Andreoni, J, N Nikiforakis and S Siegenthaler (2021), “Social tipping points and forecasting norm change”,, 30 April.

Bertrand, M, C Goldin, and L F Katz (2010), “Dynamics of the gender gap for young professionals in the financial and corporate sectors”, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 2(3): 228-255.

Bisin, A and T Verdier (2011), “The economics of cultural transmission and socialization”, in: Benhabib, J, A Bisin, and M Jackson (Eds.), Handbook of Social Economics, 1, Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp. 339-416.

Cavapozzi, D, M Francesconi, and C Nicoletti (2021), “The impact of gender role norms on mothers’ labor supply”, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, forthcoming.

Fernández, R (2011), “Does culture matter?” In: Benhabib, J, M O Jackson, and A Bisin (Eds.), Handbook of Social Economics, 1A, Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp. 481-510. 

Fernández, R (2013), “Cultural change as learning: The evolution of female labor force participation over a century”, American Economic Review, 103(1): 472-500.

Nicoletti, C, K G Salvanes, and E Tominey (2018), “The family peer effect on mothers’ labor supply”, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 10(3): 206-234 .

Olivetti, C and B Petrongolo (2017), “The economic consequences of family policies: Lessons from a century of legislation in high-income countries”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(1): 205-230.

Oxford Review of Economic Policy (2020), Gender Economics, 36(4), pp. 725-922.

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