(photo by Avishai Teicher, Sculpture of Mother and a Child, in the Gan Ha’Em “Mother’s Garden” in Haifa, Israel).
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Michelle J. Budig, Vered Kraus, and Asaf Levanon

In all developed countries, women are more educated, more employed, and more highly paid than at any time in history. However, balancing work and family responsibilities remains difficult for most women. Mothers are more likely to work part-time or not at all compared to childless women and men. Moreover, the wage gap between mothers increases with each child they have, all else being held constant. Some countries reduce work-family conflict through supportive work-family policies, such as generous parental leave, subsidized childcare and family allowances. Nevertheless, in most developed countries, many women feel forced to choose between work and family priorities, which, in addition to reduced employment and wages, contributes to high and increasing childlessness, late birth rates and smaller than desirable family sizes.

In a recent Gender and Society article, we examine the employment and wage outcomes of mothers in a country where women “have it all.” Israel is a unique context for studying the effects of motherhood on employment and income: it is characterized by high birth and marriage rates and high levels of female education and employment. Convincingly, previous studies have found low motherhood penalties in Israel. However, Israel also exhibits large disparities between ethnic and religious groups, and differences in motherhood penalties between groups have not been explored. Our study is the first to use longitudinal data to examine maternal employment and wages in different groups in Israel. Given the significant socioeconomic inequality between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians, we investigate whether the general finding that all women living in Israel face multiple motherhood penalties holds true when we examine Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women separately. Importantly, we examine whether motherhood penalties are reduced in the public sector with stronger anti-discrimination policies and work-family policies. In addition, we consider whether differences in public-private employment account for differences in motherhood penalties between ethnic and religious groups.

First, some context: Israel’s population is diverse and has sharp socioeconomic divisions. It consists of Jews (75%), Muslims (20%), Christians (2%) and other minorities. Of these, Jews are the most socially and economically privileged group, while Muslims are the least privileged. High levels of ethno-religious segregation in people’s residences, workplaces and professions contribute to high inequality in education, employment rates, earnings and economic opportunities. Residential segregation shapes differences in learning quality and education across communities. Access to social services, public transport and employment in the public and private sectors is more restricted in ethnic and religious minority communities. In addition, the patterns of family formation differ between these groups, with Jewish marriage and age at first birth later compared to Muslim and Christian women, although Jewish and Muslim women have similar family structures. Together, these conditions underpin dramatic differences in education and employment between ethnic and religious groups, with Jewish women being highly educated, highly engaged, and the highest paid in the labor force, followed by Christians and a distant second by Muslim women.

Based on newly available panel data, we find that motherhood is a stronger deterrent to employment among Israelis and Palestinians than among Jews. After giving birth, Jewish women return to work at a higher rate and more quickly, with nearly 70 percent returning to work within 9 months of giving birth. This is strong among all Jewish women, regardless of education. Christian and Muslim women with higher secondary education are employed after birth similar to Jewish women. However, Christians, and especially Muslims with medium and low education, stay out of work longer after birth, and among the least educated, a third of Muslim mothers remain unemployed for 2.5 years after birth. These patterns reflect the impact of both structural and cultural factors: Muslims are more likely to live in remote communities with fewer job opportunities, poor public transportation, and little access to childcare. These challenges are exacerbated by cultural norms that encourage mothers to take direct care of children, which is more common among less educated women.

Considering the maternity wage penalty, we find per-child penalties among the least educated women in all groups. Among the least educated, labor market absence after childbirth and work experience contribute strongly to motherhood penalties, ranging from 24 to 53 percent of initial penalties between groups. These penalties decrease with increasing education. At the secondary education level, we observe maternity wage penalties for Jewish and Christian women, but not among Muslims. Across all groups, highly educated women experience lower maternity penalties and in some cases receive maternity bonuses. Especially among Muslims, children are associated with wage premiums among the highly educated. We explore this surprising finding by examining the characteristics of their labor market participation.

Muslim women who meet all three criteria—highly educated, employed, and mother—are relatively rare compared to Jewish women. For example, the maternal employment rate 18 months after birth is 47 percent for Muslims compared to 84 percent for Jews. Among the employed, 36 percent of Muslims have a higher education, and 51 percent of Jews. This sample of working, highly educated Muslim mothers is strongly segregated, with 88 percent of highly educated Muslim mothers working in the public sector, compared to 49 percent of their Jewish counterparts. The majority of Muslim mothers in this category are teachers (63 percent), compared to Jewish mothers (26 percent). Teachers in Israel have a strict collective agreement that offers higher wages to women with children. This increase in maternal income may contribute to the findings regarding motherhood premiums for highly educated Muslim mothers. In addition, Israel’s public sector is characterized by stricter anti-discrimination and work-family policies. Therefore, it is not surprising that employment in the public sector, especially for Muslims, is associated with higher postnatal employment, lower maternity penalties and maternity premiums among the highly educated. Our findings suggest that increasing education and public sector employment among Israelis and Palestinians may reduce inequality between religious and ethnic groups, taking into account the effects of motherhood on employment and income.

Our findings are very important for addressing gender and ethnic inequality. Because vulnerable workers—minorities and the least educated—bear the greatest economic costs of childbearing, efforts to increase education are critical to reducing employment inequality among mothers, especially among Muslim and Christian mothers. Furthermore, our study highlights the importance of public sector employment in supporting Israeli and Palestinian mothers’ employment and wages, strengthening employment protection and support for work-family reconciliation.

Michelle J. Budig is Professor of Sociology and Senior Vice Provost at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research has focused on labor market inequality, wage penalties for paid and unpaid care, work and family policy, and non-standard work. Her research appeared in American Sociological Review, Social Forces, Social Problems, Journal of Marriage and Familyand many other professional journals.

Vered Kraus was Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Haifa, Israel. Her work has focused on social stratification and inequality, particularly gender and ethnic inequality in the labor market. She has published several books and articles including Facing Obstacles: Palestinian Women in a Jewish-Dominated Labor Market, Promises in the Promised Land: Mobility and Inequality in Israel, and Secondary Bread Winners: Israeli Women in the Labor Market.

Asaf Levanon is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology and head of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Poverty and Social Exclusion at the University of Haifa. Drawing on social stratification research and life span science, his work examines how institutions affect life course outcomes. His works appeared in American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, Sociological Methods and Research, Social Science Research, and other professional journals.

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