School's out: Summer breaks tied to women leaving work
Drops in women’s employment are tightly synchronized with the start and duration of school summer breaks.
The steepest drops in summer employment are among moms with young school-age children, who require substantial supervision.
The drop is less pronounced among mothers of older kids, who are more independent, and mothers of very young children, who are less affected by the traditional school calendar.
Women’s summer work interruptions contribute to gender gaps in earnings.
For students around the world, summer means a break from classes and homework. For many parents, those school closures translate to a loss of free child care. Although these lapses in child care occur year after year, we know little about how they affect adult employment patterns. When it comes to studying summer breaks, research tends to focus on student learning loss rather than labor market impacts.
Our research outlined in this policy brief shows that schools’ summer recess leads to substantial declines in employment among women, particularly mothers of young school-age children (Price and Wasserman, 2022). And that’s contributing to gender gaps in earnings.
Sharp declines in women’s employment during summer
Using 30 years of monthly labor force data between 1989 and 2019 taken from the U.S. Current Population Survey, we document new facts about gender gaps in employment during the summer. As shown in Figure 1, from May to July, women’s employment-to-population ratio drops by 1.1 percentage points, while men’s remains essentially unchanged. The magnitude of the female drop is large—equivalent to nearly one-third of the decline in female employment during the Great Recession. While our research focuses on the summer months, we note that both men and women, especially men, experience lower employment during the winter months, when adverse weather and reduced consumer spending hold back economic activity.
While only women show a lower propensity to be employed during the summer months, it is common for both men and women to reduce their working time. The patterns for women differ in two important ways. First, conditional on being employed, women reduce their working hours substantially more than men. These reductions come in the form of increased absences from work (with or without pay) as well as decreased hours among those who report to work. Second, women tend to experience longer or more frequent spells of time off than men during the summer.
The central role of schools’ summer break
Why does women’s employment decline during the summer? Summer break disrupts the implicit child care provided by public schools. Surveys from the Center for American Progress suggest that parents struggle financially and logistically to make up for this lost child care time (Novoa, 2018). Summer camps rarely span the entire break or conform to typical working hours. Over 40 percent of families surveyed indicated that at least one parent planned to make a change to their work schedule to take care of their kids (Novoa, 2019).
We find that women’s employment decline is tightly synchronized with when schools get out for summer break. Figure 2 divides individuals based on whether their state has schools that close early or late, i.e., primarily before or after the second week of June. In early-closure states, the drop in female employment starts between May and June. In contrast, in late-closure states, female employment holds steady between May and June and begins its descent between June and July.
Several other facts point to school closures as a potential impediment to women’s employment. In Figure 3, we separately analyze mothers by the age of their youngest child. The steepest drops in summer employment are among mothers with young school-age children (ages 6–12) who require substantial supervision. Interestingly, the drop is less pronounced among mothers of older school-age children (ages 13–17), who require less supervision, and mothers of very young children (ages 0–5), who are less affected by the traditional school calendar.
When women transition out of the labor force during the summer, they indicate that their major activity is taking care of the house or family. Furthermore, by leveraging time diaries from the American Time Use Survey, 2004–2019, we document that both mothers and fathers of children ages 6–12 increase their time spent on child care during the summer. But for mothers, the increase is larger and more sustained.
Is it just the education sector?
School closures for summer break imply that large swaths of the education sector are off from work. It is well known that women are more likely than men to be teachers or otherwise work in schools. We find, however, that gender differences in sectoral and occupational sorting account for only about half of the gender gap in summer employment changes.
The other half reflects gender differences within sectors and occupations. For instance, within the education sector women are 5.5 percentage points more likely than their male counterparts to leave their jobs during the summer. These gender differences emerge even within specific jobs in the education sector. Among elementary school teachers, for example, women are 5.8 percentage points more likely than men to exit employment during the summer. Outside of the education sector, too, we observe women exiting employment at higher rates than men.
Consequences for earnings
The summer drop in female employment leads to declines in women’s pay. By examining weekly earnings—considering employment, hours of work, and unpaid absences from work—we find that women’s earnings fall by 3.3 percent over the summer, about five times the decline experienced by men.
Women’s earnings are also shaped by their higher propensity to work in education, which offers greater alignment with the school calendar but tends to pay less than similar jobs outside of education. Given its summer flexibility, it is no coincidence that women gravitate to the education sector: Their propensity to work in education peaks when their children are old enough to attend school.
Women’s earnings may be impacted through other channels as well, such as forgone work experience or reduced productivity during the summer months. We leave these important considerations for future research.
Understanding the full implications of summer break
Summer break has long held the attention of researchers and policymakers due to its prolonged disruption to children’s education, leading to learning loss. Our research points to another consequence of yearly school closures: widening gender gaps in employment and earnings. Policies that ameliorate summer learning loss—such as universal access to summer school—may have the added benefit of helping to level the playing field for men’s and women’s labor market outcomes.
About the Authors
Melanie Wasserman was a Visiting Fellow at SIEPR from 2022-2023. She is an Assistant Professor of Economics at the UCLA Anderson School of Management focusing on gender disparities in the U.S. labor market.
Brendan M. Price is a Senior Economist at the Federal Reserve Board. He focuses on labor markets and economic forecasting.
Flood, Sarah, Miriam King, Renae Rodgers, Steven Ruggles, J. Robert Warren, and Michael Westberry. 2021. "Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 9.0 [dataset]." Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS.
Novoa, Christina. 2018. “Families Can Expect to Pay 20 Percent of Income on Summer Child Care.” Center for American Progress Report.
Novoa, Christina. 2019. “When Parents Can’t Find Summer Child Care, Their Work Suffers.” Center for American Progress Report, available at .
Price, Brendan, and Melanie Wasserman. 2022. “The Summer Drop in Female Employment.” Working Paper.