Establish New Work Norms

Our biggest challenge … is interrupting the connection between care-giving and economic vulnerability.

-Joan Williams

Prevailing work norms in most of the world disproportionately reward workers ...

who can spend large amounts of time on the job uninterrupted by other responsibilities in locations determined by employers, and maintain that work pattern for decades. The benefits for workers who can provide this type of “uninterrupted labor” include more job opportunities, higher pay, and often public influence. The costs for those who cannot conform to this model of the ideal worker include lower labor force participation, reduced wages, and a distinct lack of public power. As caring responsibilities are one of the main reasons many workers, typically women, cannot accommodate these work norms, the winners and losers fall along gender lines. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has found evidence of a considerable “motherhood pay penalty” across countries, and a recent USA study found that mothers with dependent children experience the largest wage gaps of all, earning $US300 a week less than fathers with dependent children.

As a result of “masculine” work norms that advantage men over women with caring responsibilities, poverty is higher than it would be, our workplaces are not as productive as they might be, and economic growth is not as strong as it could be. Not only do women with caring responsibilities, and particularly sole parents, suffer higher rates of poverty, but workplaces cannot attract and retain the best talent as they must draw from a limited pool of potential employees who can offer uninterrupted labor over long periods of time. Typically these employees either have no caring commitments because they do not have dependent family members or, more often, they rely on others to provide that care, often without remuneration. At the national level, our economies grow more slowly than they might because they cannot fully harness the capabilities of all potential workers. Eliminating the motherhood pay penalty is a strategy that can simultaneously reduce in-country poverty and inequality, while increasing labor market productivity and national economic growth.

To encourage all nations to create the conditions for new work norms to flourish that do not penalize workers with caring responsibilities, countries should set a new target to reduce the motherhood pay penalty by 50% by 2025 and eliminate it by 2030. Strategies to achieve this goal should be based on introducing what Harvard economist Claudia Goldin calls “temporal flexibility” into the workplace, by allowing workers with caring responsibilities flexibility in three fundamental ways - when they work, where they work, and how they work. When caring responsibilities peak over the lifecycle (e.g., following the birth of a child, caring for a sick child or an aging parent, etc.) family leave should be standard practice. Technology should enable flexibility in both work location and work method, reducing the need to travel. As governments, employers, and employees will all enjoy the benefits of increased worker flexibility, they should work together to finance the costs, prioritizing access for families with dependent children on the lowest incomes.

The United Nations (UN), its agencies, and development partners should campaign for the creation of new work norms offering workers unprecedented flexibility in when, where, and how they work, with a special focus on women with dependent children, especially in the countries with high rates of poverty and low female labor force participation. The UN should also prioritize eliminating the motherhood pay penalty as part of Sustainable Development Goal 8.5 (achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value), and 5.4 (recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure, and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate).

Updated January 2024

Masculine Work Norms

Most jobs reward those who spend large amounts of time on the job uninterrupted by caring responsibilities. #JustActions

Motherhood Pay Penalty

Mothers with dependent children experience the largest wage gaps and earn far less than fathers. #JustActions

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There is a pay penalty for women with children relative to women without children and men in low-, middle-, and high-income countries ranging from 15% in high-income countries to 40% in low-income countries. Women with two and especially three children experience larger pay penalties, especially in high-income countries, as additional daughters in low-income countries are often expected to help with household and caring tasks enabling mothers to work - often at the price of their own education.