Despite being increasingly more visible in the public debate, gender gaps still remain strong in many countries. In most European countries, labour market differences between men and women are sizable. In 2012 the male employment rate in the EU-27 was 74.6% versus 62.4% for women. But this hides considerable disparities across European countries. While female employment rate is highest in Iceland at 79.1% (84.4% for men), and remains above 70% in Scandinavian countries, it is only 50.5% in Italy (71.6% for men), and even less in Greece and Malta.

Why are these gaps not closing up – or at least not at a higher speed? Some scholars (Del Boca 2002, Del Boca et al. 2009) blame non-family-friendly institutions present in the labour market and non-family-friendly ‘family policies’. Yet, cultural aspects have also been shown (Fernandez 2007) to play an important role in explaining the existence and the persistence of these gender gaps. The cultural and social evaluation of women’s and men’s roles in society, of their responsibilities in the family context, and of their position in the labour market, largely influences labour market participation, education decisions, career prospects, and even fertility. These views are just as established among men, as among women. For instance, women are often seen (and see themselves) as the better provider of care for their children, and, thus, refrain from delegating childcare. At the same time, they may be sceptical about their chances of being successful both as mothers and in their working career. Furthermore, this gender culture is persistent. Preferences tend to be transferred from one generation to the next, as parents may have a taste for transmitting their values to their offspring, or because, regardless of their own preferences, parents choose to teach their children how to best respond to the predominant culture.

How can the gender culture be modified?

Fogli and Veldkamp (2011) provide some ideas. They suggest that knowledge and information may play a role in breaking this intergenerational transmission mechanism of gender stereotypes. Their empirical analysis shows that, as women learn about the effects of maternal employment on children – by observing nearby employed women of the previous generation – they realise that these effects need not to be negative. After all, these women managed to keep both a job and a family. As a result, female participation rates increased. This study, thus, indicates that the persistence of gender stereotypes may depend on women lacking information, for instance, of the consequences of their participation in the labour market on their children’s psychological and educational outcomes.

To further pursue this information channel, we provide a direct test of the effect of a public policy, which consists in releasing information to women about the benefits of using formal childcare on their labour market, and on childcare-intended behaviours. We design a survey experiment on a sample of Italian women of reproductive age. Our goal is to study whether providing information on the positive consequences of formal childcare on children’s outcomes – thereby increasing their knowledge on this issue – has a causal impact on women’s decisions of using formal childcare, of participating in the labour market, and of how to arrange the childcare within the family. In particular, we expect this positive information to reduce possible parental scepticism about the use of formal childcare centres, and thus – to promote its adoption. Additionally, a more extensive utilization of formal child care could allow mothers, who represent – in Italy, but also elsewhere – the main provider of parental care, to have more time to dedicate to market activity.

Our informational treatment consists of two types of persuasive communication – text messages and a video – regarding the effectiveness of formal childcare in increasing children’s future educational attainments. The informational content of our treatment borrows from recent studies that have shown day-care attendance to have positive effects on children’s educational outcomes in Germany, Italy and Norway (Felfe and Lalive 2010, Havnes and Mogstad 2011, Brilli et al. 2011). Can our information persuade women to use more childcare, and thus to increase their labour supply?
To provide an answer to this question, a sample of 1,500 Italian women between 20 and 40 years old is randomly assigned to three groups.

  • The first group is treated with a set of text messages, i.e., women in this group saw on screen text messages, which state the benefits of day-care attendance.
  • The second group is treated with a video message, i.e., women were shown a video featuring six months-to-three-years-old children doing activities at a day-care centre, while a background voice read the same messages on the benefits of day-care attendance, as shown to the first group.
  • The third – control – group was not treated and, hence, did not receive any information.

Before the treatment, background individual characteristics, such as age, marital status, number and age of children, nationality, education, level, and work activity were asked. After the treatment, we asked all women several questions, related to different topics, which represent our outcomes of interest. The questions include:

  • Their intention to use formal childcare, as well as their willingness to pay for it.
  • Their intended participation in the labour market, both on the extensive and on the intensive margin.
  • Other family arrangements.

Our experimental results suggest that information on the educational advantages obtained by children who attended childcare reduces women’s intended labour supply. This surprising result hides strong heterogeneous effects. Among non-mothers, who may expect to have a child, and thus envisage their future childcare and labour decisions, education attainments draw a clear divide. High educated women respond to the informational treatment by increasing their intended use of formal childcare, and are also willing to pay more for it. Low educated women instead do not modify their formal childcare decision, but reduce their intended labour supply.

How to interpret these, somewhat surprising, results?

Educational attainments may depend on women’s working ability type and on their identity as career oriented or of maternal type women (Akerloff and Kranton 2000). High ability and career oriented women are more likely to become educated – and thus to earn a high wage. Information about the benefits of using formal childcare thus re-enforce their decision of sending their children to formal care. Low ability and maternal type will instead be more likely to remain uneducated, and thus to earn low wages. To them, new knowledge about the benefits of formal care – and in general about the relevance of early childhood investments – will strengthen their own maternal role. This may be due both to their preferences for maternal care, and to the monetary incentives related to their low wages.

The existence of this heterogeneous effect has important policy implications. Public policies about childcare use should acknowledge that childcare decisions by the mothers may depend on budgetary restrictions – as in the case of low-wage mothers – but also on maternal identity. Some (low educated) mothers may choose to keep for themselves the role of main care provided for their children, even when family friendly institutions are available.


Akerlof, G and Kranton,(2000) “Economics and Identity” Quarterly Journal of Economics 115(3): 715-753.

Brilli Y, Del Boca D, Pronzato C (2011), “Exploring the Impacts of Public Childcare on Mothers and Children in Italy: Does Rationing Play a Role?”, IZA DP 5918.

Del Boca, D (2002), “The Effect of Childcare and Part Time Opportunities on Participation and Fertility Decisions in Italy”, Journal of Population Economics 15(3): 549-573.

Del Boca, D, Pasqua, S and Pronzato, C (2009), “Motherhood and Market Work Decisions in Institutional Context: a European Perspective”, Oxford Economic Papers.

Felfe C. and Lalive R (2010), “How Does Early Childcare Affect Child Development? Learning from the Children of German Unification”, CESifo Area Conference on Economics of Education, Center for Economics Studies, mimeo.

Fernàndez, R (2007), “Women, Work and Culture”, Journal of the European Economic Association 5(2-3): 305-332.

Fogli, A and Veldkamp, L (2011),“Nature or Nurture? Learning and the Geography of Female Labor Force Participation”, Econometrica, 79(4): 1103-1138, 07.

Havnes T and Mogstad M (2011), “No Child Left Behind. Universal Childcare and Children’s Long-Run Outcomes”, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 3, 97-129.

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