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02.08 Sticky Practices: The co-evolution of early years childcare, parental leave and women’s labour force participation

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Early childhood education and care is a topic that receives attention both for its contributions to improving later schooling and development outcomes of the children themselves, and as an essential service for working parents (as demonstrated during the Corona pandemic). Reliable and widely available childcare is also essential to enable women’s work in particular. However, how this is provided, what the uptake is and what the further impact is on parental working patterns differs across countries. Given the currently stalled Dutch government proposal (revived in the hoofdlijneneakkoord 2024 published on the 16th of May 2024) to make childcare free or subsidized up to 96% for all income groups, this topic is pertinent to assess policy. This project aims to look at how (pre-)school childcare institutions have co-evolved with norms around mother’s work, maternity and paternity leave, postnatal care etc. using a comparison of several countries representing a number of different child-care provision regimes and parental leave arrangements over the long-term to determine how various critical junctures have affected outcomes today. This will be done by research into the historical evolution and path dependency of these norms and arrangements. The project connects to the agenda of SCOOP’s mission by exploring the intersection of care and work, and examining how norms around the combination of labour force participation and care develop and perpetuate themselves.

Aim of the project

Childcare is an essential yet unstable nexus between family, care and work. The balance between work, care and family is to a large extent determined by norms around family organization, the care of children and labour participation. These norms are sticky but are also key in determining societal outcomes. In the Netherlands a norm has developed around the number of days a week that parents are prepared to put their children into daycare, with three days a week the widely accepted average. In practice this requires that at least one parent works less than fulltime and often also means that support from grandparents is necessary on a weekly basis. At the same time, parents in the Netherlands spend a relatively high percentage of their income on childcare (in 2012 after subsidies this was around 20% and as prices of daycares have risen more than the annual corrections to the governmental subsidy this percentage is now likely slightly higher). This project will explore how norms around early years childcare develop and in what contexts they change. The goal is to identify how critical junctures matter; how seemingly small differences and decisions have an impact over time and lead to norm creation and institutional arrangements which are path dependent (David 2007, Bussemaker 1993, van der Lippe 2011). What factors cause norms around childcare, labour force participation and parental leave to change or remain immutable? For the Dutch case, for instance, what is the importance of the co-evolution of childcare norms and the pillarization and the subsequent secularization of Dutch society?

Theoretical background

Early years childcare is seen as important for a variety of reasons but the uptake of it is often limited by affordability, availability and emotional factors around allowing “strangers” to raise one’s child. The norms around childcare differ widely across different European countries and in the Dutch context are closely tied to women choosing to work part time. 

Research design

The thesis would consist of an in-depth historical study of early childcare institutions in a number of countries. The Netherlands would certainly be one of the cases, with at least one Nordic country and one Southern European country, the UK, an ex-Soviet bloc country and potentially a case-study from the global South. The exact selection of case studies would depend on the preferences and expertise of the PhD candidate. 

The data for this project would be gathered from statistics of central government agencies complemented by data collection on the specific cases from archival sources. The aim would be to cover the evolution of childcare since at least the 1970s as married women started to enter the paid labour force in greater numbers. From approximately the 1970s onwards there is more consistent data available to carry out this research. However, the project would also explore what is possible to push this back further in time. Both the Second World War and the Industrial Revolution were important shocks to the arrangements of work and family care. Where the data is available the project would look to explore earlier phases of commercialized or charity-based childcare. or the ways in which childcare challenges were solved informally within social networks. The International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam has archival material on early forms of child care which the PhD project could build on. Louis Henderson’s PhD recently completed at the university of Oxford, has looked extensively at early years education in the UK in the late 18th century as a way to facilitate women’s labour force participation.

An important first step for the project would be to quantify and examine the uptake and use of daycare and its impact on employment patterns and to explore which social groups use daycare, how much daycare they use and how and when changes in the amount of daycare come about. If cultural norms matter you would expect to observe that certain social groups adapt more or less quickly to changing availability and “pressure” to use daycare. This would be explored using quantitative data but also by researching the changes in perceptions on and the normative and economic context of daycare over time, and what critical junctures influenced these changes. Is it used as a tool to improve welfare or to improve labour participation? Is it in the interests of the children or the parents? This would be examined using policy reports, legislation, media coverage, reports by supervisory organs but also where possible looking at views on the role of parents and the impact of outsourcing care etc. Additionally, the cost, financing and form of daycare would be analysed to explore what impact this has on the uptake. In its essence the project is one about how culture and institutions evolve and change particularly as they relate to values that have an impact on women’s work. Here the main thrust of the research would be aimed at looking at how real world outcomes of child care policies and the (unintended) consequences of the design of parental leave and child care policies have shaped changes in labour participation?.

The dual analytical framework (quantification combined with an institutional and cultural historical analysis) would allow the PhD student to explore to what extent policy and legislation has the desired outcome or to what extent and how market liberalization changes the sector. Furthermore, depending on the interest of the PhD, the project could also explore the relationship between parental leave arrangements (particularly those around birth) and childcare uptake or around childcare arrangements and other relevant long-term outcomes (i.e. school attainment, indicators of biological wellbeing, etc). 

Link to SCOOP

Ensuring that parents have adequate access to early years childcare is key in ensuring that they remain active participants in the labour market. The pandemic and the associated closings of schools and creches threw into stark relief the important role these institutions play in enabling parents to work (and how gendered the outcome is). Furthermore, the financing of early years care and the costs determine which social groups will take up early years care. The organisational structure of day care facilities is also important in this. Where creches have a profit incentive the effect of state financing will differ from a setting where organisations are more public in character. Understanding these differences in their cultural and institutional context matters for upcoming policy changes in childcare. One study of the proposed Dutch government changes to make childcare subsidised up to 96% for all income groups suggests that the fact that this is only up to a certain maximum hour price (and many daycares charge above that hour price) will simply result in the organisations behind daycare increasing prices across the board whereby the system remains only accessible to parents of substantial means. 

Ensuring that mothers (and fathers) contribute to the labour force is an important goal not only for reasons of equality but because, with an aging workforce, any untapped workforce is sorely needed. The widespread, egalitarian provision of daycare in conjunction with parental leave is therefore an important tool in increasing the resilience of societies to changes in the future.

Given what has been sketched above in this section this project proposal fits in at least two SCOOP workpackages, namely that of care and that of work, specifically then in the category of research into external shocks and spillovers.

  • Discipline
    Economic & Social History, Sociology
  • Location
    Utrecht University, Faculty of Humanities


Bussemaker, M. (1993). Betwiste zelfstandigheid: Individualisering, sekse en verzorgingsstaat. Amsterdam: Sua.

David, P. A. (2001). Path dependence, its critics, and the quest for ‘historical economics’. In Evolution and path dependence in economic ideas: Past and present (pp. 15–40). Edward Elgar Publishing.

Kahn, A.J. and Kamerman, S.B. (1976) Child Care Programs in Nine Countries: A Report Prepared for the OECD Working Party on the Roleof Women in the Economy. Paris: OECD

Louis Henderson (PhD as yet unpublished)

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (1974) Care of Children of Working Parents. MS/S/74.9 Directorate for Social Affairs, Manpower and Education, Social Affairs and Industrial Relations Division for the Working Party on the role of Women in the Economy. Paris: OECD.

Van der Lippe, T., De Ruijter, E., De Ruijter, J. & Raub, W. 2011. Persistent inequalities in time use between men and women: A detailed look at the influence of economic circumstances, policies, and culture. European Sociological Review, 27, 164-179.