International Day of Families: How marital status shapes labour market outcomes

Married life still has a gendered effect on women and men's labour market outcomes, including their labour force participation, the type of jobs they hold and the forms of labour underutilization they are exposed to.

Every year on the 15th of May, the world celebrates the International Day of Families, recognizing the importance of families as basic units of society. This Day provides an opportunity to raise awareness and share knowledge on social, economic and demographic issues related to families.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that families are under strain, facing new pressures during the crisis as they shelter from health risks and care for out-of-school children while also fulfilling household chores and work responsibilities.

The international community has committed to achieving gender equality at large by 2030 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but without gender equality in families, this goal will not be achieved in societies and economies.

In this regard, the ILO and UN-Women recently found that the labour force participation rates of women and men are closely linked to the composition of the household they live in: female labour force participation is significantly lower among women living with a partner and children than among women living only with a partner. This, in turn, is significantly lower than the participation rate of women living alone. The exact opposite pattern is observed for men.

In addition to the new database on labour indicators by household type, ILOSTAT also includes numerous labour indicators broken down by sex and marital status, allowing us to dig deeper into the issue of how gendered social norms shape women’s and men’s labour market situation.

Marriage drives up men's labour force participation while it drives down women's

Thanks to the breakdown by marital status available in ILOSTAT for many labour indicators, we can confirm once again the gendered effect of marriage on labour force participation.

In general, men have higher labour force participation rates than women, but this gender gap is exacerbated for married people. In all 107 countries with data, the prime-age labour force participation rate is higher for married men than for married women. The gender gap in labour force participation is wider amongst married people than amongst single people in all countries with data except one (Cook Islands).

What is more, in all countries with data prime-age men have higher labour force participation rates when married than when single, whereas the same is true for women in only 18 per cent of countries with data.

Married people, and especially married women, are more likely to be underemployed or discouraged

The labour force participation rate indicates the share of people who are in the labour force (either employed or unemployed). It does not distinguish between those who are unemployed or those who are employed but would like to work longer hours than they do. In this sense, labour underutilization measures are very revealing.

Based on available ILOSTAT data from 103 countries around the world, single people are more likely to be unemployed than married people. In all 103 countries with data, the prime-age unemployment rate is higher among single men than married men, and in 91 per cent of countries it is higher among single women than married women.

However, when unemployed, married people find it harder to secure a suitable job and remain unemployed for longer. The share of long-term unemployed (those unemployed for a year or longer) is higher for married people than for single people in 91 per cent of countries with data for women and in 82 per cent of countries for men.

This suggests that the lower unemployment rates of married people may be due to their becoming discouraged in their job search or devoting themselves to household activities. The data show that this is especially true for women.

Indeed, the female share of prime-age discouraged job-seekers (those who would like to take up a job but are not looking for a job for reasons related to the state of the labour market) is larger among married people than among single people in 84 per cent of countries with data. What is more, in 95 per cent of countries with data, the female share of the prime-age potential labour force (those who are not in the labour force but are either available for a job or looking for one) is larger among married people than among single people.

Furthermore, employed women are more likely to work shorter hours than they would like to than employed men, and this gendered aspect of time-related underemployment is stronger among married people. The time-related underemployment rate is higher for women than for men of prime working age in 76 per cent of countries with data when focusing on married people, and on 64 per cent of countries when focusing on single people.

Stereotypical gender roles still play too strong a role in the labour market situation of women and men. Associated with gendered social norms, marriage too often keeps women out of the labour force and exposes them disproportionately to different forms of labour underutilization, by preventing them from job searching even though they would like to take up a job or by driving them to work in a paid job less hours than they would like to.

Married women often work as contributing family workers and married men as own-account workers

ILOSTAT data suggest that workers’ marital status may also influence the type of job they hold.

In general, single people are more likely to be employees than married people, and this is more pronounced for women. The share of employed who are employees is larger for single women than married women in 97 per cent of countries with data, and for single men than married men in 87 per cent of countries with data.

There are different types of self-employment jobs, and there seems to be a gender pattern in the type of self-employment jobs held. In broad terms, married men appear to be more likely to be own-account workers, whereas married women appear to be more likely to be contributing family workers.

The share of employed who are own-account workers is larger for married women than single women in 85 per cent of countries with data, and for married men than single men in 93 per cent of countries with data. Also, the share of employed who are contributing family workers is larger for married women than single women in 75 per cent of countries with data, while it is larger for married men than single men in only 13 per cent of countries with data.

This shows how gendered social norms and stereotypical gender roles are perpetuated in the distribution of jobs within economic units, especially family economic units.

Workers’ marital status also seems to be correlated with their occupation, once again with a strong gender pattern. The data suggest that marriage pushes men to strive for career advancement and reach highly skilled positions, while it often has the opposite effect on women’s careers.

The female share in management (which is too low across the board) is larger among single people than among married people in 90 per cent of countries with data. Similarly, the female share in professional occupations is larger among single people than among married people in 82 per cent of countries with data. Conversely, the female share in elementary occupations is larger among single people than among married people in only 39 per cent of countries with data.

Key takeaways

Having key labour statistics broken down by marital status sheds light on how family life determines people’s labour market situation. In particular, it reveals the persistent gendered effects of married life on people’s economic and career decisions.

Gendered social norms mean that marriage pushes men to participate more in the labour force, strive for career advancement and reach highly skilled positions, while it has the opposite effect on women’s labour market outcomes.

Moreover, although single people are more likely to be unemployed than married people, this seems to be because married people are more exposed to other forms of labour underutilization. Once again, gendered roles have an impact, exposing married women disproportionately to underemployment and relegating many to the margins of the labour market.

If you are interested in knowing more about the impact of household composition on women’s and men’s labour force participation, check out our previous blog Having kids sets back women’s labour force participation more so than getting married.

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