How can childcare policy affect intra-household power dynamics?

Level: leicht
Francesca Sanders and Nina Schubert | Exploring Economics
How can childcare policy affect intra-household power dynamics?

Perspektive: Feministische Ökonomik
Thema: Arbeit & Care, Gender
Format: Text

How can childcare policy affect intra-household power dynamics?

Author: Francesca Sanders and Nina Schubert

Review: Corinna Dengler

This is an essay of the writing workshop Gender and the Economy - Perspektives of Feminist Economics, published on 6 November 2017.



Standard neoclassical economic models assume that households make decisions about consumption and productive activity as a single unit. This is, of course, not reflected in reality, where men and women have very real differences in their ability to make decisions and in the type of decisions they make.

This essay begins from the premise that intra-household power discrepancies exist and that these factor in decision-making processes. We will explore if power dynamics in the household can be changed, and if so, how. While there are many strategies and policies that might affect intra-household power dynamics, here we will focus on government childcare policy and its various channels of possible influence as one example.

The policies we have in mind are those policies, or combinations of policies, that support the universal availability of childcare. The most obvious of these is a guaranteed public childcare space for every child and government subsidies to families to pay for some or all of the costs of childcare. This is advocated for by many feminist economists, for example Ferber (2003: 18), who also points out the subsidies should be means tested to target low-income families. Of course subsidies are not sufficient in isolation, and to be successful also require the building of childcare centres and an increase in the number of childcare workers. Other strategies could be to make attendance to kindergarten for one year before commencing school compulsory, as is the case in Austria, or such as in Sweden where the local municipal government is required by law to find a childcare space within three months of application, or in Estonia, where the price of childcare is capped at 20% of the monthly national minimum wage.

While childcare policies have the potential to affect a variety of household types in all regions of the world, the channels through which this happens can differ greatly. We also note that our discussion of household power dynamics focuses mainly on heterosexual couples in mostly rich countries, unless otherwise stated.

Household power, gender, and institutions

There are many views on the determination of power within the household, its relationship with gender, and the role institutions play in this regard. Game theoretic bargaining models claim that money talks – meaning that the person with a higher income has more power in the household. From this perspective, gender affects power relations indirectly through relative earnings. However, this perspective only captures part of the picture. It is important to recognize that gender structures identities, attitudes, norms, and institutions and therefore affects intra-household power relations through gendered expectations (see for example Bittmann et al 2003).

Theories suggesting a relationship between family policy institutions, including childcare, and gender-role beliefs and attitudes offer two perspectives in this context.

The first considers institutions as shaping the opportunities available to individuals, who instrumentally act towards the attainment of their given preferences. Institutions determine the options and constraints individuals face and therefore influence individuals’ decisions through the resulting rewards and opportunity costs. According to this perspective, attitudes towards the role of women are shaped by the range of options available and the rewards they forgo by maintaining the traditional housekeeper role (see for example Morgan and Walker 1983). This is supported by studies, for example Pedulla and Thebaud (2015), who found that the availability of supportive institutional arrangements changes the preferences women have regarding how they spend their time, (e.g. by participating in the labour market) towards a more egalitarian arrangement.

This suggests that gender norms may be perpetuated due to women (and men) not being aware of alternative ways they can spend their time, and also highlights that external forces can impact internalised norms and ideals.

Another view claims that gender-role beliefs and attitudes are at least partly endogenous to institutions. Institutions, such as childcare policy, might not only affect individuals’ rational and strategic calculations, but also have the potential to shape their actual identities, attitudes, and beliefs. This does not deny that human action can be goal-oriented and rational, but recognizes that what is considered as rational behaviour is in itself socially constituted. Rational behaviour does not necessarily mean the course of action that leads to the greatest material gain, but also to what is seen as most morally justifiable. What is suggested here is that institutions have the power to change exactly these opinions (see March and Olsen 1984, 1989; Thelen and Steinmo 1992; Rothstein 1998).

The potential effects of childcare policy

With these perspectives in mind, we now explore some potential channels through which the provision of universal childcare could affect power dynamics within households, both in the short- and long-term.

To start the discussion, we examine the impact that can occur through increased female labour market participation. It has been well established that access to childcare has a positive impact on women’s labour market participation (see for example, Del Boca, Pasqua and Pronzato 2009; Henau, Meulder and O’Dorchai 2010; Jaumotte 2003). Thévenon (2013: 27) cites childcare availability and increased female labour force participation as having an “unambiguous positive correlation”. The effect on household bargaining may come from the status and respect afforded to women who have a job in and of itself. It can also come from the effect of having increased financial power.

Several models of bargaining power discuss the role of the “threat point”, or the fall-back position, on the power a woman holds within a household. This threat point could be external (threat of divorce) or internal (threat of disharmony) and reflects the outcome if the couple is unable to come to an agreement about a given issue. It explains that, for example, if a woman relies on her partner entirely for financial support and cannot support herself without him, she may concede in negotiations more often than if she considers herself to be financially independent. The argument follows that increasing financial independence through employment affects the threat point and thus strengthens the woman’s bargaining power.

If women decide to use the newly acquired free time that becomes available due to childcare for participating in the labour market, their joint household income will most likely increase due to the presences of two earners instead of one. This tends to bring more stability to the household, since risks such as unemployment, sectoral crises (assuming that the partners work in different sectors), or becoming unable to work get spread over both partners. Having this security can take pressure off men in their role as sole breadwinner both on an economic and a psychological level. It gives them the possibility to reduce their effort and hours in paid labour and, in case they hold an unsatisfactory position, frees up the possibility for searching for a more fulfilling job.

When analysing the productive (market) sphere, one has to consider what happens in the reproductive sphere (the household), because they never function separately and the former cannot exist without the latter. There may be channels through which the share of work in the reproductive sphere could be influenced. The opportunities arising from the aforementioned advantages of the dual-earner model together with increased female bargaining power have the potential to change the perception of the “proper” role of both men and women in society through various interacting and self-reinforcing channels.

Further, if both parents are in the paid labour force and provide resources for their family, it might follow that they also share the responsibilities of unpaid household activities more equally than single-earner couples. This would mean that fathers are encouraged to spend relatively more time and develop deeper relationships with their children (while mothers spend relatively less time with them), which could, over time weaken the norm of seeing mothers as the main carers and fathers as the main earners. Based on this assumption, it can be hypothesised that the reduced significance of these gendered expectations may also have implications on the gender based occupational segregation in the labour market. If men are more frequently exposed to children, or more generally said to do care work, and if it is socially accepted, they could become more likely to take on jobs in the social sector, where the majority of workers is currently still female. Thinking even further, this could, for example in the case of an increased share of male childcare workers, substantially shape the gender-role attitudes and beliefs of future generations. The more “normal” it is for children to be raised and educated by both men and women, the more likely they will develop gender egalitarian views on who does what type of work. It may even be the case that increased male participation in paid care work could also positively affect the wages in this sector, as was seen with computer programming work when it transitioned from being a female-dominated field to a male-dominated one.

What does reality look like?

While in theory, greater access to work and income may afford a woman greater strength in bargaining in the home, the empirical studies emphasise the importance of gender norms and gender roles that can at times be stronger than any given income effect. Mader and Schneebaum (2013) test the hypothesis that greater absolute income and greater relative income will strengthen a woman’s decision making power. They found that when a woman earns between 150-299 per cent of their partner’s income she has the greatest decision making power that she can. They conclude that those policies aimed at reducing the gender pay gap (which could arguably include childcare provision) would likely improve equality in decision making as well. It is important to note however, that they found regardless of relative earnings, certain decisions are almost always made by women, for example those about everyday purchases and purchases relating to children. This highlights the pervasiveness and strength of the effect of gender roles on decision making in the home. Other studies have also found that an increase in income does not always lead to an increase in bargaining power. Dema-Moreno (2009) argues that while women with low income have little bargaining power, it doesn’t necessarily follow that increased income increases that bargaining power.

Bittman et al. (2003) also found that gendered social norms are highly relevant and difficult to completely untangle from other influences. In a study of couples in Australia and the US, they found that increases in women’s relative income led to greater sharing of housework than previously through an increase in work done by the man in the partnership. However, in Australia, they found that once women start to earn more than their male partner, women tend to increase the relative amount of housework they performed. They speculate this could be in an attempt to return to social “normalcy”. This study highlights the limits of income on bargaining power and the strength of social norms.

Further, according to OECD data, women perform more home duties (including child care and home maintenance work) than men, no matter how many hours of paid work they also do. The implication is that increased labour market participation alone has not yet shown to be sufficient to reduce the burden of care work on women.

What can be done?

Although the theoretical ideas outlined above sound very promising and give an insight into the possible self-reinforcing effects of the provision of childcare, it is crucial to note that they are rather an idealistic view of how more egalitarian gender relations could exist. In order to transform gender-role attitudes and beliefs and, most importantly, actually lived realities, it is not sufficient to introduce one single policy that mainly promotes the labour market participation of mothers. Other complementary policies that give males incentives to engage in care, and therefore not only support a dual-earner but also a dual-carer family model, is necessary. An example would be a parental leave policy, where both partners are entitled to take a certain share of leave that is not transferable to their partner. Further possibilities to facilitate family arrangements and give both women and men the opportunity to reconcile paid and unpaid activities would be a reduction in working hours or the increased flexibility of working time in a way that increases workers’ freedom to organise their daily lives.

Moreover, if sustainable change towards egalitarian gender relations is to be achieved, a rethinking of the values assigned to paid and unpaid work within society is required. As long as the rewards and appreciation for doing care work do not increase, change will only come slowly. Higher wages in the care sector would be a good starting point to better reflect the value of such work, and give individuals, especially men, incentives to engage in this type of work and trigger a transformation of gender norms. Also needed is a policy concerning the pensions of women who take time out of work to raise children that compensates for the reduced time spent in the labour market and thus the lower pension they receive.

Another issue to be considered is regarding which groups of people actually do the care work when both couple members participate in the labour market. A common solution in many rich countries is that migrant women are hired to provide care work for low wages. This practice can be seen as a shift of undervalued tasks from one disadvantaged group to the other or a recycling of women’s tasks among women that perpetuates existing gender divisions and wage gaps between migrants and non-migrants. Higher valuation of care work could therefore lead to structural changes that can reduce inequality on various levels within society.


It can generally be said that childcare policy is likely to affect people differently across dimensions such as race, class, or sexual orientation, since these always intersect with each other. Furthermore, it has to be noticed that the discourse on the gendered effects of childcare is largely based on the analysis of heterosexual couple households largely in wealthy countries. When considering non-traditional families, such as same-sex couple families, single parent households, or households with more than two adults, the effects may be very different. Although studies indicate that same-sex couples also engage in a division of labour, where one partner does more paid work and the other performs more of the unpaid work, it is not clear what the effects of childcare provision could be and how they differ from other family types (Giddings et al. 2014).

While a discussion on the effect of non-family childcare on child outcomes would go beyond the scope of this essay, it is important to bear in mind that the provision of public childcare does not automatically lead to positive outcomes for children. In order for children to benefit in terms of their cognitive and non-cognitive skills as well as their physical health from early childhood education and socialisation with other children from an early age on, the quality of childcare facilities and the education of well-trained personnel in this sector is key. This goes hand in hand with a structural re-valuation of care work, also in monetary terms.


This essay has discussed the possible channels through which provision of childcare might affect intra-household power dynamics. While in theory, greater access to work and income enabled through universal access to childcare will afford a woman greater strength in bargaining in the home, the available evidence emphasises the importance of gender norms and gender roles that can be stronger than any other effect.

This highlights the importance of tackling gender norms and ideals, which is a much more complex and ongoing issue than any single government policy can resolve. Still, childcare policy has been shown to go in some way to impact public opinion about gender roles and thus should be considered a valuable piece of the puzzle.



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