Why access to quality early childhood education and care is a key driver of women’s labour market participation

  by Eric Charbonnier, Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

We are in 1961. JF Kennedy is president and has just designated Eleanor Roosevelt as chairwoman of the new US Commission on the Status of Women: "We want to be sure that women are used as effectively as they can to provide a better life for our people, in addition to meeting their primary responsibility, which is in the home." Fifty-seven years ago, women had to make a choice between pursuing a career or having children. Back then, access to early childhood education and care (ECEC) services was reserved for the elite and was not considered a policy priority; maternity leave was rare, while paternity leave was unheard of. This may seem strange now, but just try to think of society in the 1960s. Just think how far we have come since then: In 1961, only 38 % of women were employed in the United States. In 2015, this figure was at 70%.

Don’t be fooled by the upbeat statistics though. Two generations later, inequalities still exist.  Although women are more engaged in the labour market, they are still three times more likely to be employed in part-time positions than men. They are also less likely to be employed in higher-paid occupations, and less likely to progress in their careers. However, mindsets have evolved, and combining a career and a family for women is no longer the heresy it used to be.  As a recent example, the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, announced some months ago both her first pregnancy and her husband’s paternity leave: "I’ll be Prime Minister AND a mum, and Clarke will be “first man of fishing” and stay- at- home dad." The news was generally well--received, a stark contrast to 1961 when low provision of early childhood services and other work-family provision would have made such a decision virtually impossible.

This month’s Education Indicators in Focus brief takes a closer look at how provision of early childhood education and care has affected the participation of women in the labour market over the years. In the last half century, women’s labour force participation has increased dramatically in most countries. The rise in ECEC provision over this period has greatly contributed to this change, particularly for mothers with a child under the age of 3. As shown in the figure above, both components are strongly associated. However, there are substantial cross-country differences. In countries where mothers’ labour market participation rates are the highest, the proportions of very young children enrolled in early childhood services are also the highest (see quadrant on the top-right). By contrast, combining childrearing and employment is most difficult in some eastern  European countries (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, the Slovak Republic), as well as in Mexico (see quadrant on the bottom-left), partly because these services are under-developed in those countries.

The availability of early childhood services plays a key role in the increased labour force participation rates among women. This in turn has public benefits in terms of higher contributions to society and to economic growth.  But having a good access to such services is not sufficient. The number of ECEC hours per week available to young children is paramount to increasing the full-time participation of mothers in the labour market. For that reason, many OECD countries have recently increased the number of free hours of ECEC entitlements, or shifted from half-day to full-day kindergartens. However, here again, wide variations among countries still exist. Countries with both high levels of participation in early childhood education and care and greater intensity of participation (in hours per week), such as Nordic countries, are in general those in which most mothers work full-time.

Women’s participation in work does not only make economic sense for a nation, but the benefits of early childhood services towards better learning for the children themselves are also now widely acknowledged. In this context, it is not surprising that ECEC has experienced a surge of policy attention in the last fifteen years. However, despite many initiatives over this period to increase access, equity and quality of these services across OECD countries, affordability remains a key challenge in most of them. It is true (and a positive step) that governments often provide various schemes to help reduce the cost of early childhood services for poorer families (including cash transfers, rebates and tax reductions), but these efforts are still insufficient. Thus, children under the age of 3 in most countries are more likely to be enrolled in ECEC if they come from relatively advantaged socio-economic backgrounds or if their mother has completed a tertiary education degree.

Society has progressed a lot in fifty-seven years. Who would have thought in 1961 that someday women would no longer have to make a choice between their career and raising a family? Stronger access and provision to early childhood education and care services has greatly contributed to more equity in the workforce, but more is needed to ensure fully equal participation of men and women, whether at work or at home. Hopefully we will not have to wait another half century to see that happen.

Education Indicators in Focus No. 59 - How does access to early childhood education services affect the participation of women in the labour market?
OECD Early Childhood Education and Care
Starting Strong 2017: Key OECD Indicators on Early Childhood Education and Care


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