Questions and answers about
the economy.

What explains the gender division of labour and how can it be redressed?

Adam Smith’s division of labour was about the efficiency gains from task specialisation in factories. But the gender division – gaps between men and women in pay, prestige, career progression and much more – can also be highly inefficient as well as highly inequitable.

Centuries of economic growth and campaigning have enabled gender parity in legal rights in the developed world. But there remain persistent gaps in the economic standing of women and men across all high-income countries.

Women still make systematically different education choices from men, and they bear most of the earnings penalty that comes from becoming a parent. What’s more, gender gaps in paid work are typically exacerbated by gender gaps in unpaid work, which leads to differences in access to leisure and economic prestige that favour men.

These inequalities naturally raise issues of redistributive justice, related to unequal access to employment opportunities and life satisfaction. Additionally, economists are becoming increasingly concerned about the optimal distribution of goods and services in the economy, what’s known as allocative efficiency.

If we accept the premise that innate talent is equally distributed between men and women, barriers to women's entry into certain male-dominated occupations imply that the talents of some remain underused. This applies equally to the underuse of men in occupations dominated by women. What’s needed is a rethink of traditional trade-offs between equity and efficiency, and the associated zero-sum fallacy – the idea that one person’s gain must mean another person’s loss.

Drivers of gender inequalities are actively researched in several areas of economics. Recent advances are coalescing around different gender barriers to labour market opportunities.

One key constraint for women is their primary role in raising and caring for children. Evidence from several countries has established that while childbirth is fairly neutral for men’s careers, it causes a large and persistent drop in women’s earnings. On becoming a parent, women are more likely than men to leave employment and, if they remain in work, they tend to favour family-friendly working conditions. These include flexible schedules and shorter hours, which are less conducive to career development and progression.

The resulting motherhood penalty is not substantially mitigated by the availability and generosity of child-care support policies, nor by the introduction of parental leave rights that are exclusively reserved for fathers. As a result, it’s natural to think about the deeper roots of these inequalities, which are related to social norms about appropriate gender roles in the household and the workplace.

One can think of norms as social prescriptions about what is appropriate and inappropriate for men and women to do in society. For example, the male breadwinner model has clear prescriptions for gender roles in the family, with consequences for women’s investment in their careers.

One central issue is that even gender-neutralising policies face an uphill struggle whenever they provide incentives for behaviour that clashes with conservative gender norms. As such, in conservative societies, families may be unwilling to substitute maternal child-care with state-provided child-care, and fathers may be reluctant to take up paternity leave.

Figure 1: Gender pay gap for median gross hourly earnings for full-time employees

Source: Office for National Statistics, 2022

In some cases, norms stem from intrinsic beliefs about gender roles. In others, they are mostly shaped by peer pressure and the reputational costs associated with breaking a certain norm. It isn’t easy for policy to reshape personal beliefs, and it’s debatable to what extent third parties should be allowed to interfere with decisions taken within families.

Even recognising these limits, policy – as well as the media and the education system – can raise awareness about stereotyping beliefs and their consequences for equity and allocative efficiency. And whenever stereotyping behaviour is driven by incorrect perceptions about peer pressure, providing individuals with correct information about their peer groups can be especially effective in redressing a stereotypical gender division of labour.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Abi Adams Prassl
  • Marina Della Giusta
  • Susan Harkness
  • Barbara Petrongolo
  • Almudena Sevilla
  • Sarah Smith
Author: Barbara Petrongolo
Picture by jacoblund on iStock
Recent Questions
View all articles
Do you have a question surrounding any of these topics? Or are you an economist and have an answer?
Ask a Question
Submit Evidence