The Child Penalty – Comparing Wages of Mothers and Non-mothers

By Janna Besamusca, University of Amsterdam.AIAS, WageIndicator researcher

In societies around the world, motherhood has been intrinsically linked to care. Children represent a competing time demand, affecting mothers’ allocation into the labour market.  While a significant share of women withdraws from the labour market altogether after childbirth, the majority of mothers in high and middle income countries today retain some attachment to formal or informal labour markets. Having to combine work and family however does affect women’s careers and earnings. Child penalties or premiums quantify the implications of having children on the labour market earnings of those women who continue to perform paid labour.

The Child Penalty in Figures

Using WageIndicator data, we composed an overview of thirteen countries. We present some descriptive statistics which show that in most countries mothers earn less than women with comparable characteristics. As figure 1 shows, the average woman at 35 earns less if she has children. Such is the case in all countries except Belgium. Comparing 35 year old unmarried mothers and non-mothers (red bars) and married mothers and childless women (green bars), the same picture emerges. Unmarried mothers are worst off in Indonesia, where they earn only 60 cents for each Rupiah childless women earn. Married mothers earn the least in Brazil, at 70% of non-mothers’ wages.

Figure 1: Ratio of mothers’ to non-mothers’ hourly wages at age 35. 


Source: WageIndicator Online Survey 2013. Descriptive comparison of mothers’ predicted hourly wages compared to childless women at the same age and marital status.

As figure 2 shows, mothers between 30 and 49 years are especially disadvantaged compared to their childless counterparts.  In Brazil they earn only 77% of the pay childless women in the same category get. In Slovakia and South Africa however, mothers are increasingly disadvantaged at the labor market in the older age categories, while the opposite is true in Argentina and Brazil. This is connected to the selection into employment, in other words, which mothers continue to work and which mothers become full time home makers.

Figure 2: Child penalty per age group 


In most countries the child penalty is relatively small in the public sector, apart from the two countries in Latin America, i.e. Argentina and Brazil. In Indonesia and South Africa on the other hand, mothers experience the largest penalties in the commercial services sector. In Belarus, Russia and the Czech Republic the trade, transport and hospitality sectors have larger child penalties.

Figure 3: Child penalty per sector


In general, mothers earn the lowest wages relative to non-mothers in low skill occupations. This is most pronounced in Indonesia, where a 35 year old mother in a low skilled occupation earns only a third of what her childless counterpart makes. In a number of countries, like Argentina, Belgium, Brazil and South Africa, mothers in skilled occupations experience smaller child penalties than those in low skilled or high skilled occupations.

Figure 4: Child penalty per occupational skill level


With the exception of the Netherlands and Ukraine, highly educated women suffer the smallest penalties from having children. In Brazil, Belarus, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, low educated mothers earn only between one and two thirds of what their childless peers make.

Figure 5: Child penalty per educational level