The birth of a child necessarily entails work adjustments for one or both parents. Most often, it is the mother who steps back by taking parental leave or working reduced hours. In this article, Jonas Wood and Leen Marynissen examine the reasons for this gender asymmetry. Is it linked to gendered parental norms or to more unfavourable working conditions for women? What if women had men’s working conditions? Using Belgian data, the authors respond to these questions by analysing returns to work and the use of post-birth parental leave according to the pre-birth working conditions of each parent as well as the labour market situation.
1The unprecedented rise of the dual-earner model in Western countries has undoubtedly transformed the fundamental organization of households in post-war times. However, the shift towards gender equality remains incomplete. The negative impact of childbearing on employment is stronger for women compared to men, and the majority of parental leave is used by women. The available literature provides two strands of explanations for the gendered impact of childbearing on labour market positions. First, according to microeconomic theory, gendered divisions of labour reflect relative labour force potential. The partner with the highest returns from employment is more likely to specialize in paid work, and if necessary the other partner specializes in domestic work (Becker, 1991; Lundberg and Pollack, 1996). Second, contextual theories claim that persistently gendered parenting norms and institutional setups yield gendered labour market responses to childbearing (West and Zimmerman, 1987; Coltrane, 2000). Using unique longitudinal register-based Belgian panel data for 1999–2010, this study analyses the development of parental employment and leave uptake strategies among heterosexual couples with a dual-earner constellation prior to birth. The aim is to assess whether dual-earner couples develop these strategies by applying a cost-benefit rationale, which is in accordance with microeconomic expectations of specialization. Deviations from microeconomic rationality suggest the persistence of gendered institutions and parenting norms.
2The contribution of this article is threefold. First, it expands on the available research concerning the gender division in paid work after childbearing, as most studies focus primarily on Anglo-Saxon countries and Germany (Sanchez and Thomson, 1997; Schober, 2011; Kühhirt, 2012; Baxter et al., 2015; Lyonette and Crompton, 2015; Yavorsky et al., 2015), where work–family reconciliation policies are limited and large employment gaps exist between mothers and non-mothers (Boeckmann et al., 2015). Research on gendered parental leave uptake considers mostly Scandinavian countries (Haas et al., 2002; Sundström and Duvander, 2002; Bygren and Duvander, 2006; Duvander and Johansson, 2012; Duvander, 2014) with extensive work– family policies and explicit welfare state goals that pursue gender equity and fathers’ direct involvement in childcare (Duvander and Johansson, 2012). Thus, this study fills a research gap by providing novel evidence for Belgium, a context with a highly developed system of work–family reconciliation policies, such as subsidized outsourcing of childcare and household work (Van Lancker and Ghysels, 2012; Marx and Vandelannoote, 2015), as well as small employment gaps between mothers and non-mothers (Cukrowska-Torzewska, 2016). However, this country has dedicated little policy effort towards gender equity in parenting. Assessing gendered labour market responses to childbearing in such a context may indicate whether extensive work–family policies effectively yield gender equality. Conversely, persistent gender inequalities may inspire the development of targeted gender policies.
3Second, recent research progressively uses longitudinal data to monitor the impact of childbearing on employment. However, the administrative panel data used in this study provide longitudinal quarterly data for a 10-year period, which is superior to retrospective histories as well as survey panel data based on waves with multiple intermediate years, because they may be unreliable (Verbakel, 2010). Administrative data has an additional advantage compared to surveys as they imply larger samples and a more detailed and reliable account of labour force positions.
4Third, while previous research relates various individual pre-birth employment characteristics to gendered parental employment and leave uptake strategies, this study is among the first to also quantify the aggregate-level impact of the gendered distribution of employment characteristics on parental employment strategies. Simulations assess the degree to which parental employment strategies at the aggregate-level change if the gendered distribution of pre-birth employment characteristics were to be reversed between partners.
I – The Belgian institutional setting
5Belgium is an interesting case for studying gendered parental employment and leave uptake strategies, primarily because its institutional configuration exhibits relatively strong work–family reconciliation policies, while at the same time it clearly differentiates according to socioeconomic position and gender. As to the former, Belgium during the 2000s was featured on the short list of countries that met the Barcelona targets for formal childcare (33% enrolment for children under 3, 90% for children between 3 and 6) (Population Council, 2006). Aside from formal childcare provisions, Belgium also has a relatively flexible parental leave system for employees (which is embedded in a general system of career breaks) with varying degrees of labour reduction: 100% for a maximum of 4 months; 50% for up to 8 months; or 20% limited to 16 months, which is the most popular option. The two latter options are available only to full-time employees. Parents are allowed to split up the leave period, depending on the sector of employment and previous work history; and it can be used until the child is 12 years old (Merla and Deven, 2010). Parental leave is an individual right for mothers and fathers, and eligibility is linked to employment in the public sector (conditional on having an employment contract) and in the private sector (conditional on having worked at least 12 months for the current employer in the last 15 months prior to the application) (Merla and Deven, 2010). Previous research on uptake patterns indicates that, after controlling for eligibility, only a minority of parents use parental leave (Anxo et al., 2007; Kil et al., 2018). Focusing on mothers who had their first child between 2004 and 2010, Kil and colleagues (2018) report that 46% of eligible mothers used parental leave. As for parental leave uptake by men, the available literature highlights the lack of reliable statistics, but also provides indications of considerably lower leave uptake among fathers (Merla, 2017). In addition to family policies, Belgium is also a forerunner country with respect to the subsidized outsourcing of household work (Marx and Vandelannoote, 2015). The Belgian Service Voucher Scheme, which was introduced in 2004, subsidizes more than 70% of the cost of services rendered to individual consumers. From 2005 to 2010, the most recent years considered in this study, the number of users increased from 190,734 to 760,707.
6In contrast to the particularly egalitarian Swedish context, most other countries with relatively strong work–family policies (e.g. Belgium and France) exhibit more variation by socioeconomic position and gender. In Belgium, socioeconomic inequalities in parental leave uptake are strongly related to eligibility criteria based on previous work experience (Kil et al., 2018) and are also reflected in considerable differences in the uptake of formal childcare across the income distribution (Van Lancker and Ghysels, 2012). In addition, available literature indicates that higher socioeconomic groups reap most of the benefits from subsidized outsourcing of household work and childrearing tasks (Marx and Vandelannoote, 2015; Van Lancker, 2017). As regards gender, although the high availability of formal childcare has been identified as an instrument for limiting gender inequalities in parental employment (Saxonberg, 2013), the low flat rate parental leave benefits (€727 per month for full-time leave in 2010 (Merla and Deven, 2010)) and the difference between the duration of maternity (minimum 9 weeks) and paternity leave (10 days) have been identified as ‘genderizing’ (Saxonberg, 2013).
II – Theoretical framework
7Most economic and some sociological theories assume that parental employment strategies result from rational decision-making. Rationality is defined as the state in which actors consistently behave in a way that maximizes utility, which may also be identified as satisfaction. This sense of satisfaction has many potential sources, ranging from microeconomic benefits, such as resources, to moral satisfaction as a result of norm-confirmative behaviour.
1 – Microeconomic rationality
8From a microeconomic perspective, a partner’s decision to exit the labour force or take parental leave centres on maximizing a joint utility function. Resources and time are pooled and invested in the most cost-efficient manner (Mincer, 1962; Becker, 1991; Browning et al., 2014). Thus, the partner with the lowest opportunity cost (e.g. forgone income) of time spent on non-market activities will be more likely to exit the workforce (Mincer, 1962). Economic bargaining models similarly assert that the division of labour and household work is a product of intra-household negotiations (Lundberg and Pollack, 1996) in which both partners try to maximize their individual utility, and the partner with the greatest returns from employment has the most bargaining power. This power allows one partner to avoid housework and childrearing, which are assumed to be ‘unpleasant’ or less-rewarding activities (Geisler and Kreyenfeld, 2011).
9Concerning to the decision to opt out of paid work, we derive four potential mechanisms from microeconomic theory. First, individuals with higher hourly wages than their partner are less inclined to exit employment not only due to the high opportunity costs (forgone income), but also due to their higher bargaining power (Begall and Grunow, 2015). Second, the partner with higher pre-birth work hours is less likely to leave the labour force because having a stronger attachment to paid labour is likely to go hand in hand with greater experience, which in turn positively affects future access to paid work (Herrarte et al., 2012). Third, the partner with the most stable pre-birth employment is least likely to leave the labour force, as employment security yields utility and bargaining power. Fourth, workplace characteristics also determine work– family compatibility. In addition to numerous sector-specific factors, large workplaces are more likely to have in place routine practices that facilitate combining work and family, e.g. on-site day-care centres or greater access to parental leave, policies that are likely to stimulate parental employment (Bygren and Duvander, 2006).
10Similarly, couples’ parental leave uptake is expected to reflect pre-birth employment characteristics. First, the parent with the highest hourly wage will be less likely to use leave in order to limit the couple’s loss in income (Sundström and Duvander, 2002). Second, partners with more working hours are more likely to use parental leave because only full-time employees are eligible for the popular part-time parental leave schemes (Merla and Deven, 2010). What is more, individuals with fewer working hours need less leave to spend time with their children. Third, parents with stable employment patterns before childbearing are more likely to use parental leave because employment intensity is an eligibility criterion (Merla and Deven, 2010), and employees in stable employment positions potentially face less negative career consequences from taking leave (Kil et al., 2018). Fourth, large firms typically have routine parental leave practices and are more likely to offset the temporary loss of labour, which may result in fewer obstacles to leave-taking (Bygren and Duvander, 2006).
2 – Rationality in a normative and institutional context
11If women outperform men in the labour force (e.g. earn higher wages), the persistence of couples’ traditional gender specialization in response to childbearing constitutes a paradox, from a microeconomic point of view. Hence, it is necessary to go beyond microeconomic considerations and focus on normative and institutional contexts. In this regard, Duncan and Edwards (1997) coined the term ‘gendered moral rationalities’ to describe the behaviour of individuals who adhere to a collective understanding of which activities are best for men and women to perform. Thus, gendered labour force responses to childbearing reflect an expectation that men should act as financial providers, while women are considered caregivers (Haas et al., 2002). These gender norms are continuously reproduced by emphasizing gender in social interactions (West and Zimmerman, 1987; Lupton and Barclay, 1997; Coltrane, 2000), with deviations incurring social penalties (Heilman et al., 2004) or compensation behaviour (Brines, 1994). In addition, institutional factors such as longer maternity leaves versus paternity leaves in Belgium may reinforce gendered behaviours, as these systems introduce a gendered habitus among new parents.
3 – Previous research and hypotheses
12This article assumes that microeconomic rational theory is helpful for understanding the micro-level association between dual-earner couples’ relative pre-birth employment characteristics and subsequent parental employment strategies, while contextual factors can explain why parental employment strategies remain gendered in general (Schober, 2011). This study aims to answer two complementary questions, each of which frame two corresponding hypotheses.
13First: Are partners’ employment and leave-taking strategies linked to their relative pre-birth employment characteristics? According to microeconomic theories, gendered parental employment and leave strategies reflect gendered pre-birth employment characteristics. Regarding labour force exits, we expect that the partner with the highest wage, most working hours, most stable employment, and largest workplace will be less likely to exit the labour force compared to his/her partner (Hypothesis 1A). Previous results for the US (Sanchez and Thomson, 1997), UK (Kanji, 2011), Germany (Kühhirt, 2012), and the Netherlands (Begall and Grunow, 2015) indicate that, compared to their partners, women’s pre-birth relative wages and working hours positively relate to their employment following childbirth. Previous research also shows that mothers’ employment in the Netherlands is positively related to occupational status relative to their partners (Begall and Grunow, 2015); while in Spain it is negatively related to their partners’ pre-birth working hours (Herrarte et al., 2012). With respect to parental leave uptake, we assume that the partner with the lowest wage, most working hours, most stable employment, and largest workplace will be more likely than his or her partner to use parental leave (Hypothesis 1B). Although this mechanism is expected to hold for both male and female partners, support in available literature stems mostly from research indicating higher leave uptake by fathers whose female partners are higher earning and/or higher educated in Germany (Geisler and Kreyenfeld, 2011) or Sweden (Sundström and Duvander, 2002). Further evidence for the latter country also indicates a positive relationship between fathers’ workplace size and their leave uptake (Bygren and Duvander, 2006).
14The second question is: Would gendered parental employment and leave uptake strategies among employees be reversed by reversing the gendered distribution of pre-birth employment characteristics within couples? In line with contextual theories, we assume that, beyond pre-birth relative labour market positions, parents at the aggregate level will generally exhibit gendered strategies. Even in conditions where male and female partners have each other’s pre-birth employment position, gendered responses to childbearing persist due to gender roles being conformed to and reproduced (Brines, 1994; Duncan and Edwards, 1997; Coltrane, 2000) and to gendered institutions (e.g. longer maternity than paternity leave). This implies that female partners at the aggregate level are more likely to exit the labour market, beyond the distribution of labour market positions by gender (Hypothesis 2A), and that female partners are more likely to use parental leave, beyond the distribution of labour market positions by gender (Hypothesis 2B). Previous research similarly interprets persisting gendered labour force responses to childbearing when controlling for pre-birth labour force positions as a potential indication of gendered parenting norms and institutions (Kühhirt, 2012).
III – Method
1 – Data
15We use data from the Belgian Administrative Socio-Demographic Panel (ASD Panel) that was constructed using longitudinal microdata from the National Register and the Crossroads Bank for Social Security. The ASD Panel is representative of the female population aged 15–50 years legally residing in Belgium between 1 January 1999 and 31 December 2010. Apart from the sampled women, the panel also includes all official members of the same household on 1 January in each year. Thus, the ASD Panel is representative of all co-residential heterosexual couples of whom the woman was of childbearing age and residing in Belgium in the period 1999–2010.
16This article exploits the longitudinal character of the ASD Panel by assessing how couples’ parental employment and leave use in the quarters after childbearing varies as a function of their pre-birth employment characteristics. As the potential reorganization of paid work in households is expected to differ by parity, analyses are performed separately for first and higher-order births. Parity is measured via female partners’ fertility histories. We observe couples from the moment of childbirth until the youngest child reaches age 6; they separate; a partner emigrates, dies, or becomes self-employed. When analysing one-child parents, couples are also censored 1 year before the next birth. The ASD Panel includes 12,546 couples who experience at least one birth in the 2001–2010 period and were a dual-earner household 1 year before birth. Couples displaying self-employment 1 year before birth (n = 2,355) are not considered in this study, since the pre-birth employment characteristics of interest are not applicable (e.g. size of workplace) and/or not available (e.g. working hours). After excluding couples that are not observed for 2 continuous years before childbearing (n = 1,366) and couples with missing values for the employment characteristics measured 1–2 years prior to birth (n = 434), this study relies on a sample of 8,391 couples, among which 11,083 births occur during 139,046 couple-quarters. For this sample, labour market positions as well as leave uptake are observed at the end of every quarter. Although it is not possible to distinguish parental leave from other types of leave within the broader system of career breaks, previous research shows that most leave-taking following childbirth is parental leave (Kil et al., 2018).
2 – Models
17The analytical strategy of this study is to use pooled multinomial logit models for relating partners’ relative pre-birth employment characteristics to the couples’ parental employment and leave-taking strategies after childbearing. To capture varying strategies over time since childbirth, the age of the youngest child is used as a time variable with three categories: younger than 1 year; below pre-primary school age (1–2.5 years); and below primary school age (2.5–6 years). The first multinomial logit model distinguishes (i) female labour force exit (base category) from (ii) male exit, (iii) two exits, or (iv) no exits, doing so separately for couple-quarters after the birth of a first child (Model 1A, n = 51,857) or a higher-order child (Model 1B, n = 87 189) (Table 1, upper panel). An exit implies leaving paid employment to enter either inactivity or unemployment. The uptake of parental leave is not considered an exit, as the employment contract remains intact, and such leave in Belgium is mostly used part-time and thus involves continuing in paid employment (Anxo et al., 2007). The second model estimates parental leave uptake versus employment only for couple-quarters after childbirth without a labour force exit after birth. It also excludes couples in which one or both partners are not eligible (n = 328). We distinguish (i) female leave uptake (base category) from (ii) male uptake, (iii) dual uptake, or (iv) no uptake for couple-quarters after the birth of the first child (Model 1A, n = 45,814) or a higher-order child (Model 1B, n = 75,982). Given that the gendered character of parental employment and leave strategies is central to this study, we focus on the probabilities of male versus female labour force exit and male versus female leave uptake.
18All independent variables of interest in this study are relative pre-birth employment characteristics (Table 1, lower panel). First, pre-birth relative hourly wage equals the ratio of the female partner’s hourly wage to the household hourly wage (= sum of partners’ hourly wages), for which we distinguish (i) male higher wage couples (in which the female partner’s wage is less than 45%) from (ii) female higher wage couples (in which the male partner’s wage is less than 45%) and (iii) similar wage couples. The wages used to construct this measure are gross wages divided by the employment percentage (a full-time contract is 100%). Second, we include an approximation of pre-birth relative working hours by distinguishing couples in which (i) the male partner has the highest employment percentage (the female partner’s employment percentage is less than 45% of the household employment percentage); (ii) the female partner has the highest employment percentage (the male partner’s employment percentage is less than 45%); and (iii) couples with similar employment percentages. Third, pre-birth relative employment intensity is measured as accumulated employment experience, which is the number of quarters in which a person was employed in the preceding 2 years. We distinguish couples with (i) higher male employment intensity (female partner’s employment intensity is less than 45% of the household employment intensity); (ii) higher female employment intensity (male partner’s employment intensity is less than 45%); and (iii) equal employment intensity. Fourth, based on a predefined indicator of workplace size in the register data (using the following ranges of values: less than 5, 5–9, 10–19, 20–49, 50–99, 100–199, 200–499, 500–999, and more than 999 employees), this study assesses pre-birth relative workplace size by distinguishing couples in which (i) the male partner has a larger workplace, (ii) the female partner has a larger workplace, and (iii) both partners are employed in the same size category.
Distribution of couple-quarters by employment/leave strategies and births by relative pre-birth employment characteristics by parity, Belgium, 1999–2010
Distribution of couple-quarters by employment/leave strategies and births by relative pre-birth employment characteristics by parity, Belgium, 1999–2010Note: The sample distribution of all covariates is available upon request.
19In addition, as previous research indicates that absolute employment characteristics at the individual and household levels also affect work–family strategies (Kühhirt, 2012; Schober, 2011), we control for the corresponding absolute pre-birth positions at the household level (see Appendix Tables A.1 and A.2) (household total wage, sum of working hours of both partners, sum of the employment intensity of both partners) and the female partner’s employer size. In order to control for numerous sector-specific characteristics that may impact parental employment and leave-taking in various undistinguishable ways, we control for both partners’ pre-birth sector of employment: agriculture, mineral extraction, industry; wholesale, retail; logistics, storage, energy distribution; education; public administration, extraterritorial organizations; health services, social care; art, leisure, recreation, other services; finance, estate; administration, support services, professionals; and hotel and catering. In addition, the models on labour force exit include a time-varying approximation of parental leave eligibility, which indicates continuous employment by the same employer for at least four of the preceding five quarters. This variable is used as a selection variable in the models for parental leave. Finally, as pre-birth employment characteristics may be influenced by pre-birth leave uptake, the models for couples with two or more children include a dummy for the use of pre-birth parental leave by both parents.
20The analyses also control for sociodemographic characteristics that have been found to impact labour force participation and parental leave use. As work–family strategies vary depending on the number of children, models for couples with two or more children control for parity: two, three, four, and five or more children. Assuming that couples who become parents at unconventionally young or old ages may adopt different parental employment strategies, we add a linear and squared term for the age of the father and the mother in years. As previous research indicates that parental employment and leave uptake varies by ethnic origin (Kil et al., 2017, 2018), we control for couples’ origin (based on partners’ and their parents’ country of birth): (i) couples with two Belgian origins, (ii) a male partner with a non-Belgian origin, (iii) a female partner with a non-Belgian origin, (iv) same-origin non-Belgian couples, (v) mixed-origin non-Belgian couples, and (vi) couples with unknown origin(s). Further, as unmarried cohabitation is associated with progressive values such as gender egalitarianism, we include a dummy variable indicating whether a couple is married. Finally, in line with research highlighting the importance of contextual correlates of couples’ employment patterns (Vitali and Arpino, 2016), we include female and male quarterly unemployment rates with a 1-year time lag and region of residence.
21In addition to using longitudinal micro-level models to assess whether couples’ parental employment strategies relate to pre-birth employment positions in the expected directions (Hypothesis 1), this study assesses whether pre-birth employment characteristics have a strong enough impact to considerably alter the gendered response to childbearing, particularly in cases where the distribution of pre-birth employment characteristics may be different (Hypothesis 2). Using parameter estimates obtained from Models 1 and 2, this study simulates parental employment strategies under a hypothetical scenario in which male and female partners in our sample have each other’s pre-birth employment characteristics. This simulation is performed in three steps. First, we estimate Models 1 and 2 by using the observed data at the micro level. Second, we substitute the male and female partners’ pre-birth employment characteristics (pre-birth wages, employment percentage, employment intensity, and size of workplace). Third, we combine the hypothetical distribution of pre-birth employment characteristics with the micro-level models by calculating out-of-sample predicted parental employment and leave-taking strategies for the hypothetical gender distribution of pre-birth employment characteristics, using the estimated associations in the observed data.
IV – Results and discussion
1 – Parental employment strategies
22Figure 1 displays the observed parental employment and leave-taking strategies for our sample, with particular attention to the constellation in which one partner takes leave or exits the labour force versus the continuation of the dual-earner model. Four observations are of particular interest. First, by definition, our sample of pre-birth dual-earner couples includes solely couples in which both partners were employed or on parental leave 1 year before birth. The infrequent uptake of leave 1 year before the first birth (Figure 1A), which is mostly leave to provide palliative care or take care of a severely ill relative, contrasts with a higher prevalence of leave uptake before a higher-order birth (Figure 1B), which is mostly related to childbearing (Kil et al., 2018). Second, our sample of dual-earner couples 1 year before birth exhibits a higher prevalence of non-employment 2 years before birth. This instability in labour market positions prior to childbearing may reflect anticipation behaviour in the sense that these couples prefer having a child while they are both employed (Wood et al., 2017). Third, after the birth of a child, the majority of our sample exhibits a continuation of the dual-earner model. The share of dual-earner couples—in which both parents work or use leave—hovers, respectively, around or slightly below 90% of our sampled couples for first and higher-order births. Fourth, the birth of a child is found to coincide with increasing gender differentials, as reflected in larger shares of female leave uptake and female labour force exits compared to their partners. Our multivariate analyses aim to assess the degree to which these gendered labour market responses to childbearing are related to pre-birth employment characteristics.
2 – The importance of pre-birth relative employment characteristics
23Controlling for the aforementioned covariates, partners’ relative pre-birth hourly wages significantly affect the probability of a male (versus a female) labour force exit among one-child couples (Table 2). Male higher wage couples have ((1 – 0.508) × 100) 49.2% lower odds of a male exit compared to equal wage couples. In contrast, when the female’s pre-birth wage is higher, a male exit is more likely (89.2% higher odds). This finding holds for first and subsequent births. With respect to working hours for higher parity couples, we find the expected negative effects of higher male working hours and positive effects for female working hours on a male labour force exit. For one-child couples, we similarly find a positive, though insignificant, relationship between higher female working hours and a male labour force exit; whereas the weak positive association between higher male working hours and a male employment exit is not consistent with our expectations. The effects of relative employment intensity indicate 78.6% lower odds of a male exit among one-child couples in which the male partner has higher pre-birth employment intensity and 81.1% higher odds in the opposite situation. The corresponding effects for higher parity couples are 65.1% lower odds when the male partner has higher pre-birth employment intensity and 569.2% higher odds when the female partner has higher employment intensity. The magnitude of the latter effect is likely to be affected by the low sample size for couples in which the female partner had higher employment intensity (Table 1). Finally, the effects of relative workplace size show that couples with a larger female workplace have 56.7% higher odds of exhibiting a male labour force exit after a first birth and 47.5% higher odds of a male exit after a higher-order birth. However, couples with a larger male workplace do not differ significantly from couples with equal workplace sizes. In sum, although some insignificant effects are not consistent with our expectations, these findings provide considerable evidence for microeconomic specialization or bargaining based on pre-birth employment characteristics. Partners with lower wages, fewer working hours, lower employment intensity, and employment in smaller workplaces are more likely to exit the labour force instead of their partner (Hypothesis 1A).
Distribution (%) of couple-quarters by parental employment strategy, Belgium, 2001–2010
Distribution (%) of couple-quarters by parental employment strategy, Belgium, 2001–2010Note: Couples are censored in analyses for birth order x from four quarters before birth x + 1.
Multinomial logit models of parental employment (Model 1: labour force exit vs. employment and leave uptake) (Model 2: leave uptake vs. employment)
Multinomial logit models of parental employment (Model 1: labour force exit vs. employment and leave uptake) (Model 2: leave uptake vs. employment)Note: The effects of all covariates are available in the Appendix.
Statistical significance: * p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001.
24As for parental leave uptake, the odds of male (versus female) uptake among one-child parents are 42.4% higher for pre-birth female higher wage couples and 28.2% lower for pre-birth male higher wage couples. Although this pattern of effects is in line with our expectations, the differences are not statistically significant. For higher parity couples, the odds of male parental leave uptake are lowest for male pre-birth higher wage couples. However, female pre-birth higher wage couples also exhibit significantly lower odds of male leave uptake compared to equal wage couples, which is not in line with microeconomic theory. The effects of pre-birth relative working hours for higher parity couples are in line with our expectations, as couples with more male and more female working hours are respectively more likely to exhibit male and female leavetaking. In addition, the higher odds of male leave uptake among one-child couples with higher male pre-birth working hours are expected. However, one-child couples with higher female pre-birth working hours also exhibit higher odds of male leave-taking compared to couples with equal pre-birth working hours. The latter may be related to the small sample size of couples with higher female pre-birth working hours (Table 1). As expected, the occurrence of higher female employment intensity before birth is related to lower odds of male leave uptake. Finally, our hypothesis is supported by the significant negative effects of a larger female pre-birth workplace on male parental leave uptake, which further suggests that larger workplaces for women yield easier access to parental leave. In sum, these findings provide limited and mixed support for our hypothesis that partners with lower pre-birth wages, more work hours, higher employment intensity, and employment in a larger workplace will be more likely to use parental leave instead of their partner (Hypothesis 1B). This mixed support contrasts with the stronger support for our microeconomic expectations regarding gender differences among those exiting employment and entering inactivity or unemployment (Hypothesis 1B).
25Hence, these micro-level analyses indicate that, in line with microeconomic theory, gender differences in employment exits after childbearing are related to gender differences in pre-birth employment characteristics, implying that any embrace of a male breadwinner model is less likely to occur in cases where female pre-birth wages, working hours, employment intensity, and/or workplace size are all greater. When considering the predictive power of pre-birth relative employment characteristics towards the gendered uptake of parental leave, this seems to fall below our microeconomic expectations. However, both for parental employment and leave uptake strategies, questions persist. For example, despite there being a clear relationship between women’s relative pre-birth employment characteristics, subsequent parental employment, and leave uptake strategies, it remains unclear whether or not this relationship is strong enough a predictor to reverse gender inequality if we were to reverse the pre-birth gender distribution in employment characteristics.
3 – The aggregate-level impact of pre-birth labour force characteristics
26Would parental employment and leave uptake strategies be considerably different if the gendered distribution of pre-birth employment characteristics were reversed? Figure 2 presents parental employment strategies that were predicted based on the observed sample (i.e. predicted probabilities) and compares them to corresponding out-of-sample predicted probabilities of parental employment and leave-taking strategies for the hypothetical situation in which both partners switch pre-birth wages, working hours, employment intensity, and workplace size (i.e. simulated probabilities). The most common strategy—dual-earner couples without any employment exits or leave uptake (cf. Figure 1)—is not shown in Figure 2 so that we may focus on gendered parental employment and leave-taking strategies. As probabilities add up to unity, the remaining category can be calculated as the complement of the sum of the three represented strategies. The upper panel indicates that, under the condition of substituted pre-birth employment characteristics within couples, the probability of a female exit decreases, while that of a male exit increases; yet, the occurrence of a dual exit remains relatively stable. For one-child and especially higher parity couples, our findings indicate that the labour market response to childbearing becomes considerably more gender equal. However, even under the extreme and hypothetical situation that all male and female partners have each other’s employment characteristics, the probability of a female labour force exit clearly exceeds the probability of a male exit. These findings thus support the hypothesis that, on the aggregate level, female partners are more likely to exit the labour market, beyond the gender distribution of pre-birth employment characteristics (Hypothesis 2B).
27With respect to the gendered parental leave strategies that are displayed in the lower panel of Figure 2, two observations are particularly relevant. First, regardless of whether the observed or manipulated sample is used, the gender difference in parental leave uptake is much larger than the corresponding difference in labour force exits, especially for higher-order births. Hence, similar to other Western non-Nordic European countries (Geisler and Kreyenfeld, 2006; Anxo et al., 2007), leave uptake in Belgium is a strongly gendered phenomenon. Second, among one-child couples, the probabilities of female, male, or dual parental leave use are similar for the observed data and for the hypothetical simulation sample; whereas the probability of female leave uptake increases further for higher parity couples. These findings indicate that even in the extreme situation of all couples switching their pre-birth employment characteristics, the predicted gendered character of leave uptake remains relatively similar to that of the observed data; in other words, a wide gender gap in leave use. Hence, our hypothesis is confirmed that female partners on the aggregate level are more likely to use parental leave, beyond the distribution of labour market positions by gender (Hypothesis 2B).
Predicted parental employment and leave uptake strategies based on the observed data versus out-of-sample predictions on manipulated data, Belgium, 2001–2010
Predicted parental employment and leave uptake strategies based on the observed data versus out-of-sample predictions on manipulated data, Belgium, 2001–2010
4 – Robustness checks
28Three robustness checks were performed. First, regarding the extent to which women who anticipate childbearing will take jobs with particular characteristics 1 year before birth, there may be bias in the associations between these characteristics and parental employment strategies. However, descriptive analyses (not shown) indicate that relative pre-birth employment characteristics are relatively stable in the 2 years before birth, and analyses using 2 years before birth as the reference point yield similar results. Second, as the couple-quarters in our analyses are not independent, we included a random effect in additional models to control for clustering at the couple level. These models exhibit similar patterns of effects and substantive conclusions, but also more extreme odds ratios when controlling for clustering. As a result, simple multinomial logit models are presented in this article. Third, the analyses presented in this article do not include self-employment because the pre-birth employment characteristics are not applicable or available for this type of employment. Therefore, person-quarters exhibiting self-employment are also not considered in any of the parental employment strategies. Similar results are found by robustness checks that include quarters where one or both partners are self-employed in the analyses (4,076 person-quarters or a 2.9% increase in the sample).
29During the second half of the 20th century, changes such as educational expansion and growing female labour force participation entailed more gender equality in the public sphere. However, not only does this trend towards gender equality remain to be completed, it was not accompanied by a corresponding shift in private gender roles. The organization of unpaid housework and childrearing tasks continues to be strongly gendered (Coltrane, 2000), while gender inequality in labour market positions typically increases in response to childbearing (Dribe and Stanfors, 2009; Boeckmann et al., 2015). In a context of increasingly higher relative female educational and wage positions, it is paradoxical that gendered labour market responses to childbearing persist, in particular when taking a strictly microeconomic point of view. Nevertheless, contextual theories of gender behaviour emphasize that individuals act in line with gendered parenting norms and institutions at the aggregate level (Duncan and Edwards, 1997). This article’s findings suggest that microeconomic and contextual explanations for the gendered labour market response to childbearing are complementary.
30This study provides evidence for rational microeconomic decision-making, namely that a female breadwinner model after childbearing is most likely to occur among couples with higher female pre-birth wages or a female partner that works the most hours. Similarly, couples are more likely to evolve into a female breadwinner model after childbearing if the highest pre-birth employment intensity is experienced by the female partner or if she has a larger workplace. Regarding couples’ parental leave strategies, the results provide only weak support for the microeconomic hypothesis that parents with wages lower than their partners are more likely to use leave. Similarly, when we look at partners with more working hours or higher employment intensity and consider the expectation that they have a greater need for or easier access to parental leave, there is only weak support that these pre-birth employment characteristics yield a gendered division of parental leave. In contrast, in light of the relationship between partners’ relative pre-birth workplace size and their parental leave strategy, we can unambiguously state that a large workplace facilitates parental leave uptake.
31In simulating the parental employment strategies for a sample in which all parents are assigned their partner’s pre-birth employment characteristics, we show that the labour market response to childbearing becomes considerably more gender equal. However, even under this extreme hypothetical situation, our models predict that the male breadwinner model is more likely to emerge than a female breadwinner strategy. Hence, beyond the gendered distribution of pre-birth employment characteristics, female partners at the aggregate level are most likely to exit the labour market. With respect to the gendered uptake of parental leave within couples, this study indicates a higher degree of gender inequality compared to labour force exits. In addition, simulations under hypothetical gender-reversed pre-birth characteristics indicate that parental leave uptake remains mostly unchanged and highly unequal. These findings highlight the importance of contextual factors, such as the persistence of gendered parenting norms and gendered institutions (Lupton and Barclay, 1997; Coltrane, 2000; Kühhirt, 2012; Ornstein and Stalker, 2013). Furthermore, they are in line with similar findings on (pre-birth) employment positions and the division of domestic labour (Shelton, 1990; Lyonette and Crompton, 2015). Hence, even in a context like Belgium, with its relatively strong work–family policies, childbearing entails an exacerbation of traditional gender roles that embrace male-oriented employment strategies and female leave-taking. This finding suggests not only that gendered parenting norms potentially persist but also that genderizing design features of parental leave may also play a role, such as low parental leave benefits and difference in duration between maternity and paternity leave (Merla and Deven, 2010; Saxonberg, 2013).
32To end, we will identify three limitations and corresponding avenues for future research. First, although the dataset used in this study is highly detailed, it also exhibits some limitations with respect to the availability of variables. For instance, we did not include the absolute number of working hours, public versus private employment, or location of residence. Furthermore, the educational variables exhibit too low a coverage rate to be included. In addition, future research would benefit from data that include the reason for labour force exits and the non-uptake of parental leave. This would provide a more accurate picture of the extent to which strategies were developed on the basis of decision-making or of having limited opportunities. Second, our findings may also be biased due to more general mechanisms of self-selection (e.g. childbearing-prone individuals may not prioritize a career with high wages in general; or career-oriented partners may self-select themselves in higher wage jobs). Thus, this literature is likely to be enriched by future work using fixed-effects models to exploit variation over time in couples’ parental employment and leave uptake strategies. Third, despite adopting a theoretical framework that includes both economic rationality and gendered moral rationality, this study focuses solely on the pre-birth labour force determinants of parental employment and leave strategies. Looking beyond the impact of pre-birth relative employment characteristics, our findings suggest that gendered parental employment and leave uptake strategies may be related to gendered parenting norms (Kühhirt, 2012), which underscores the need for future research to empirically test the impact of these contextual factors (Duvander, 2014; Schober, 2011).
33Acknowledgements: This research was funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO), grant number G.0327.15N, and by the Research Council of the University of Antwerp (BOF), grant number BOF-DOCPRO2013.