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Sacrificing Their Careers for Their Families? An Analysis of the Penalty to Motherhood in Europe


This paper examines the extent of and the mechanisms behind the penalty to motherhood in six European countries. Each country provides different levels of support for maternal employment allowing us to determine institutional effects on labour market outcome. While mothers tend to earn less than non-mothers, the penalty to motherhood is considerably lower in countries with policy support for working mothers. The paper establishes the United Kingdom and West Germany to have the least policy support for working mothers as well as the largest penalties to motherhood.

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  1. 1.

    The statistical analyses are restricted to West Germany given the ongoing differences in the labour market performance of East and West Germany.

  2. 2.

    It should be noted that Davies and Pierre’s analysis of ‘old’ mothers is likely to be more typical of the ‘average’ mother, with the mean age of mothers at (all) birth(s) varying between 28.9 and 30.8 years (Table 1).

  3. 3.

    Further information can be found at:

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    Further information can be found at:

  5. 5.

    Davies and Pierre (2005) found German and British mothers, who were aged 25 years or over at the age of birth, had greater penalties when they had more than one child. Harkness and Waldfogel (2003) found a similar dynamic in Germany, the UK and Finland.

  6. 6.

    These models controlled for occupational level, working hours, marital status, educational level, work experience and age.


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This paper was produced as part of the Economic Change, Quality of Life and Social Cohesion (EQUALSOC) Network of Excellence, funded by the European Commission (DG Research) as part of the Sixth Framework Programme. See editors’ introduction for further details. I would like to thank the following for their thoughts and commentary on earlier drafts of this paper. Participants at the EQUALSOC network conferences and workshops, my colleagues at Manchester University: Wendy Olsen, Colette Fagan and Jill Rubery, as well two anonymous referees. Though this paper benefited from the contributions of many, Fran McGinnity deserves special mention for her very incisive, considerate but nonetheless persistent feedback. Any remaining errors are my own.

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Correspondence to Vanessa Gash.



See Table 5.

Table 5 Sample means and proportions

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Gash, V. Sacrificing Their Careers for Their Families? An Analysis of the Penalty to Motherhood in Europe. Soc Indic Res 93, 569–586 (2009).

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  • Wages
  • Maternal employment
  • Cross-national analysis