France: Effect of motherhood on employment in the public and private sectors

The family wage gap is the difference in earnings between women with and without children. A study conducted by France’s Centre for Employment Studies finds that the gap is wider in the private sector than in the public sector. This is largely because, for women, having children is linked to reduced working hours and career interruption.

Family wage gap

Many women interrupt their professional career when they give birth, either completely or by switching to part-time work. The authors of a Centre for Employment Studies (CEE) study on the effects of motherhood on pay (in French) cite data that show a majority of mothers (55%) report a change in their career progression as a result of childbirth, compared to only 10% of fathers. Such changes are likely to have an impact on, among other things, the remuneration of mothers; research literature has coined the term ‘family wage gap’ to describe this phenomenon.

Such gaps can be identified in many societies. Studies have found disparities of 5%–7% in Scandinavian countries and 16%–26% in Germany. There are numerous explanations for the family wage gap. First, the interruption of work also disrupts the consolidation of professional skills, and some skills might be obsolete when the mother gets back to work. Second, women might need to change employer to find a better balance between work and family life and, in turn, lose seniority benefits or accept lower starting salaries. Finally, some employers might discriminate against future mothers and, for instance, not consider them for promotion.

The authors of this study suggest that the mechanism of the family wage gap is different in the public and in the private sector. This is particularly relevant in the French context as the public sector offers more generous programmes to balance work and family life. Most notably, parents in the public sector receive better financial benefits for childcare and can make use of a range of schemes to adapt their working hours to family obligations. For this reason, they expected the private and public sectors to have differing family wage gaps.

Interruptions less frequent and shorter in the public sector

An important predictor for the extent of the family wage gap is arguably the frequency and length of interruption. Data presented by the authors suggest that mothers in the public sector interrupt their work less frequently and for shorter periods than those in the private sector (see table). Moreover, the interruptions are expected to be less discriminatory in the public sector as measures to facilitate work–family balance are readily available and career progress is largely dependent on seniority.

Professional transition of mothers after childbirth in the French private and public sectorS

Mothers interrupting their work after childbirth

Private sector

Public sector

First child



Second child



Third child



Length of interruption (years)

Private sector

Public sector

First child



Second child



Third child



Mothers on part-time work after childbirth

Private sector

Public sector

First child



Second child



Third child



Source: Duvivier and Narcy (2014) based on data from the 2004–2005 'Family and employers' survey (Familles et employeurs)

The study also reveals that women are significantly more likely to work part time in the public sector, especially when they have more than one child. This is because of regulations in the public sector that grant the right to part-time work to every employee who requests it. Long periods of reduced working time, however, also have a negative impact on wages as part-time workers generally have less access to training and promotion.

Effect of long maternity breaks on wages

To assess the explanatory power of different approaches, the authors of the study constructed a three-step model using data from the 2004/05 Family and Employers survey. The first specification estimates the total wage loss as a result of childbirth. The second specification controls separately for each of three sets of factors for which data are available: reduced working time; career interruption; and the ‘net effect’ of motherhood that combines adjustment of working time, career interruption and more difficult access to promotion.

The results show that only women with two or more children receive salaries that are significantly lower than those for women without children. The data also confirm that there are important differences between the public and the private sector. Having two children reduces pay in the public sector by 6% whereas the effect is twice as strong in the private sector (12%). Among women with three or more children, those in the public sector earn 16% less than women without children, and those in the private sector earn 25% less than their female colleagues.

The second step of the analysis shows that, in the public sector, the family wage gap is largely due to reduced working hours. When controlling for reduced hours, the difference in public sector salaries between mothers and women without children is no longer significant. In the private sector, however, after controlling for reduced hours the findings show that women with two children are paid 4% less than childless colleagues (and 10% less if they have three or more children). Hence, the family gap continues to be important after controlling for working hours in the private sector, albeit reduced by 8 and 15 percentage points, respectively.

A similar effect is found in career interruption. As discussed above, career breaks are longer and more frequent in the private sector. Consequently, controlling for these effects leads to similar wages for mothers and non-mothers in the public sector, but also reduces the family wage gap in the private sector, by 4 percentage points for women with two children and 10 percentage points for those with three or more children.

It is also found that the adjustment of working conditions and the access to job promotion has a very limited impact on the family wage gap in both the public and private sector in France. When all three sets of factors enter the equation, the family wage gap is no longer significant on any indicator.

Policy recommendations

The authors conclude from their analysis that it is essential to provide measures for young mothers, particularly in the private sector, that permit women to find a better balance between work and family life. This should be achieved without necessarily reducing their working hours as any reduction is shown to have a negative impact on the wage development of mothers. Possible measures could, suggest the authors, provide incentives for fathers’ participation in child rearing. In January 2014, the French parliament passed a law reforming parental leave regulations that doubles the permitted parental leave for the first child from six to 12 months when each parent takes six months off from work.

Source documents: 
PDF icon cde112.pdf
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