Disrupted employment and its economic consequences

Women’s employment patterns over their life courses are related to family events and in particular to the presence and age of children. Many women tend to drop out of the workforce after giving birth and to only return to full employment later in life. In recent years, however, a growing number of young mothers have maintained continuous labour market activity, often shifting to part-time employment but increasingly maintaining the same job and workload as that held before giving birth [Spa96] [Mai88] [Sti98] [Sun92].

The periodic separation of women from work has traditionally been viewed by proponents of human capital theory as the major determinant of the gender wage gap and of occupational sex segregation [Pol75] [Min82] [Dun92]. This is mainly because intermittent and part-time employment is assumed to result in skill atrophy, which, in turn, reduces productivity and thus wages. Workers who interrupt their employment are also perceived by employers as having lower commitment to work. Consequently, they are less likely to gain access to the high-paying, more attractive jobs [Gro88] [Sta96].

Researchers who have studied the consequences in terms of long-term rewards of women’s employment patterns over their life course have largely taken a micro-level approach, i.e. they have focused on the woman's characteristics and those of her family, generally ignoring the broader context in which employment decisions are made. While this approach explains many aspects of labour market behaviour, it generally underestimates the role of institutional and normative arrangements that structure women’s work and that may mediate the effects of intermittent or part-time employment on labour market outcomes. Many of the studies that have addressed this issue adopted a comparative cross-national approach in order to evaluate the importance of institutional arrangements to women’s employment situation. These studies have provided substantial evidence for the variation in labour market behaviour of women and its consequences, and related them to the broader societal context. More specifically, both the patterns of women's employment at different stages of their life course (e.g. before and after having children and with the changing age of the children) and the consequences of such patterns for women's earnings and career advancement were found to differ considerably, depending on the prevailing cultural codes and policies enacted in the country in question [Sti01].

The logic on which the regime classification is based also suggests that women's disrupted employment will have different implications, depending on the regime type present in the country. Continuous employment is primarily expected in countries characterised by the individual-independence regime, since these countries are committed to promoting gender equality through work in the market. In this regime, continuous employment combined with a transition to part-time employment during certain periods of life is likely to have few negative consequences, since such a mode of employment is fully supported by labour market institutions and is not taken as an indication of a lack of commitment to work. Thus, part-time employment is an alternative to employment interruption and it acts more as a ‘bridge’ to full-time employment later in life than as a ‘trap’ keeping women in marginal employment [Nat95]. On the other hand, work interruption resulting in an exit from the labour market is discouraged under this regime and is likely to be penalised both in terms of women’s ability to return to their former jobs and in terms of earnings.

Employment patterns over the life course in countries with a state-dependence regime or family-dependence regime are expected to differ from the patterns discussed above. Firstly, higher rates of intermittent employment are expected, since women’s traditional role is promoted and only limited market opportunities are offered that permit work to be combined with household obligations (this is especially true of young mothers). In the state-dependence regime, those who return to market activity later in life will most likely find part-time, secondary employment. However, work interruption may not be costly to women since most mothers work in secondary jobs that do not require high levels of human capital and do not offer high economic rewards. Moreover, due to a structured labour market and the operation of social principles in market rewards, the penalties for non-continuous full-time employment will be low. In the family-dependence regime, it is less common for women to return to paid employment. Women who do so are a highly selective group (market skills that are in demand, highly motivated etc.) and thus most likely to work full-time.

In the market-dependence regime, opportunities for women will have a strong effect on their patterns of work. Women whose earnings capacity is limited and those who face higher costs of childcare will interrupt their employment; those who can ‘afford’ childcare will continue their employment. In this regime, part-time jobs do not provide an adequate solution since they only offer poor opportunities for advancement or future transition to the more lucrative positions. Consequently, those who move into part-time jobs will encounter high penalties since they will be trapped in secondary jobs with little opportunity to improve their position in the labour market in the long run. In general, work interruptions in market-based political economies are expected to result in high economic costs. This is because interruptions involve skill atrophy and because employers interpret it as a signal of the employee’s low commitment to work [Dun92] [Min82]. A strong selection of women to full-time employment is also expected to contribute to inequality among women in terms of the financial rewards associated with work behaviour.

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