The Cost of Caregiving

A few weeks ago, I illustrated that attitudes towards a woman’s “proper sphere” were changing. Today, fewer people than ever think that women should tend home. (Heck, I even feel sexist just writing the words “proper sphere”!) This fact, combined with technologies that make housework easier, has reduced the reliance on women to do household tasks. The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of married women working.

But, a few things haven’t changed. For one, women are still responsible for the majority of caregiving. In 2019, a study by the Pew Research Center found that moms spent 14 hours per week on childcare. Dads spent 8 hours a week. And, research by myself and coauthors found that when older parents need help, daughters are three times more likely to provide it than sons. Sorry, mom!

Another thing that hasn’t changed is that women still make less than men (despite higher education!). And it turns out that one reason why is the cost of caregiving. How can caregiving lower wages? Today, I want to focus on two reasons — women’s need to take flexible jobs and the fact that caregiving often requires time off work.

Flexibility Isn’t Free

The fact that women are more likely to serve as caregivers means that they need jobs that offer flexibility. Children need to be dropped off and picked up at certain times. Calls from school need to be addressed in real time.  When caregiving for elders, the possibility of an emergency likely looms large. So, a job that allows workers to leave when needed and make up the time when able is valuable.

But, if this feature of work is valuable for workers, it is costly for employers. Clients cannot have their needs met immediately. And, other workers’ productivity may be affected by a missing coworker.  Employers will only be willing to provide flexibility if their workers are willing to be paid less in exchange.

Here’s the rub — offering flexible schedules is harder for some employers than others. Employers who find it the most costly will also have to reduce their workers’ pay the most.  For example, some employers — like those in finance or the law — have very demanding clients. Not having a worker there when the client needs them costs the firm money.

To illustrate this point, the figure below puts jobs on a spectrum from flexible to not flexible. Not flexible jobs share two characteristics: 1) little freedom to determine what task to pursue next without consulting coworkers or supervisors; and 2) the requirement of frequent contact with coworkers or the maintenance of relationships with clients. The figure — inspired by Claudia Goldin, a much better economist than me — shows how much women make relative to men in each job. The figure clearly shows that as jobs become less flexible, women get paid less relative to men. In other words, the cost of caregiving is lower wages, especially in jobs where flexibility is expensive for employers to offer.

Figure 1. Relative Wages of Women Compared to Men by Occupational Flexibility

Note: The figure shows dots that represent and occupation’s flexibility index and the wage gap between men and women. The analysis includes only college-educated women and men. The trend is the line of best fit through these dots. Authors’ calculation from Current Population Survey March Supplement and O*Net, inspired by Goldin (2014). Any mistakes are my own.

Time Lost Equals Pay Lost

Of course, sometimes the caregiving demands are so great that women cannot work at all. This effect is especially large when women have young children. The figure below compares the share of men and women working full-time and full-year by the age of their youngest child. The figure is pretty dramatic. Women with children under 5 are only about half as likely to work as men.

Figure 2. Share of Women and Men Working Full-time and Full-year by Age of Youngest Child

Note: The figure shows the share of men and women ages 25-54 working full-time and full-year between 2013 and 2017. Author’s calculation from the Current Population Survey March Supplement.

In this case, the cost of caregiving is lost experience. By age 45, women have 3.4 years less of full-time work experience than men. Since experience increases women’s wages by about 2.5 percent to 4 percent per year, the lost experience decreases women’s wages considerably.


For women, the cost of caregiving is two-fold. First, women often require jobs with more flexibility. When their jobs aren’t amenable to it, women tend to get paid a lot less than men. Second, when women have young children they work less and accumulate less experience. This also costs them money.

You may be thinking: “so what?” After all, isn’t caregiving a choice? Maybe. But, then again, our society is structured to force this choice. School ends during the work day, is closed during the summer, and doesn’t start until age 5. And Medicare doesn’t cover long-term care, forcing family members into the breach…and that tends to mean women. So, even if caregiving is a choice for some women, others may be forced to make a choice they wouldn’t make otherwise.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself…I’ll discuss policy solutions to the gender wage gap in a few weeks. Next week’s post will focus on an issue that decidedly isn’t a choice — discrimination. Because rest assured, while the cost of caregiving is lower wages for women, it’s not the only cause.

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