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Policies or Culture?

Both family-friendly policies and norms linked to women's employment over the life course

It is long established that family and employment interact across women’s life courses. Entering motherhood often means exiting the labour market and a delayed return to employment after birth. However, both family policy and gender norms may affect such labour market trajectories. Policy research tends to show a positive impact of work-family policies on women’s employment. At the same time, previous studies also show that norms about gendered roles in the household and in the labour market affect women’s employment as well. So how do these two factors – policy and norms – together interact and influence labour market participation? To what extent can policies shape the participation of women in the labour market - over and above local social and cultural norms? And are family-friendly policies sufficient to allow women to pursue a full-time career next to their family responsibilities regardless of cultural context?

In a recent study, Hannah Zagel (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Zachary Van Winkle (University of Oxford) looked at women age fifteen to fifty living throughout the 20th century across Europe, drawing on a combination of microlevel and macrolevel data to analyze work-family relationships in normative and policy contexts. The individual data on women born 1924-1957 comes from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement (SHARE). For the policy and norms contexts of different countries and cohorts, the authors constructed a macrolevel dataset using a range of policy data sources and the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP).

Results from this study show that the patterns of women’s family life courses in terms of when and in which order events happen (for example cohabitation, marriage, childbearing, or divorce) are strongly linked with their employment life courses. In general, the authors show that women with traditional family life courses are overall less attached to the labor market than childless women or women who experience single motherhood. However, when policies are also taken into account, their results indicate that work-family policies do enable women to reconcile work and family life, regardless of how permissive gender norms are. For example, in contexts with generous work-family policies, like in the Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden, women who experienced early marriage and childbearing were actually less likely to permanently exit the labor market. That said, the study also highlights the importance of norms: it was found that societies that strongly support gender egalitarianism in family life demonstrate increased labour market participation of women regardless of family type and policy setting. 

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Writer: 
Hannah Zagel