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Are Danish mothers evil?

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The general Scandinavian view of maternal employment and daycare is that it has a positive influence on the child, as long as the child does not spend too much time in daycare (more than 30-40 hours per week). In international literature, however, findings point towards mothers staying at home for the first four years of a child’s life as providing better cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes for the child. Does this mean that Danish mothers are evil?

This is the overall question SFI researchers in collaboration with researchers from Cornell University will try to answer. On the basis of Danish data, the researchers will identify the causality between maternal employment and the cognitive development on children at age 15. Does maternal employment affect children’s cognitive development and, if so, how? In contrast to the international findings, the researchers expect to find positive short-run effects of female employment on child cognitive development because of the Danish context, i.e. in Denmark, 84 percent of partnered mothers and 69 percent of single mothers are employed, compared to 68 percent and 66 percent respectively in the US. Furthermore, the researchers will test for long-run effects, which has only been done in very few studies.

More specifically, the researchers will analyse the effects of maternal employment in the first three years after giving birth on the cognitive development of offspring at age 15. They will estimate three models to test the causal relationship between the employment of women in Denmark and the cognitive development of their children. Using data on women with more than one child, they will estimate a simple OLS model, a maternal-fixed-effects model and an IV model on Danish register data provided by Statistics Denmark. The researchers will use differences in unemployment in Danish municipalities as an instrument for maternal employment. Testing three different models will give hard evidence on the robustness of the causation.

After identifying the causality on register data, the researchers will use the Danish Longitudinal Survey of Children born in 1995 (DALSC) provided by SFI to underline their results. Drawing on survey data, the researchers will again test the causality on the new dataset using IV estimation. Having established the causation, DALSC will provide information on the mechanisms behind the connection. How do full-time working mothers bring up their children in comparison to mothers who work less? How does employment affect the children? From the survey the researchers will also look into non-cognitive outcomes such as health and general well-being.

The research will not only add new information to the literature on female employment and child outcomes, but also provide new information for politicians internationally on how to build their family policies in the future.

The four researchers on the project are Rachel Dunifon, Associate Professor at Cornell University, Sean Nicholson, Professor at Cornell University and SFI researchers Lisbeth Palmhøj Nielsen and Anne Toft Hansen.

The collaboration between Cornell Professor Sean Nicholson and SFI researchers was established through the SFI Guest Program. During Sean Nicholson’s stay, the researchers were able to outline the two articles and Lisbeth Palmhøj Nielsen will be spending the next six weeks at Cornell University. 

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