If Women Receive More Childcare Support, Will They Work?

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia by Rawan Fahad. Photo via Unsplash.

In 2016, Saudi Arabia announced Vision 2030, an ambitious new framework to guide the kingdom’s next decade and a half of development. The central goals of the framework include diversifying the Saudi economy, strengthening government programs and investing in education and workforce development. As part of the latter objective, the Vision 2030 plan acknowledges the untapped potential of Saudi women and promises to “develop their talents, invest in their productive capabilities and enable them to strengthen their future and contribute to the development of our society and economy.”

With a female labor force participation rate of around 33 percent, continuing to increase female labor force participation in Saudi Arabia in line with Vision 2030 goals will require policymakers to mitigate barriers women face to employment, such as childcare. Government programs do exist to support working mothers, such as the Qurrah childcare subsidy program, paid maternity leave and mandated daycare in large firms. However, little is known about utilization of these programs and their impact on women’s propensity to work.

In a new policy brief published as part of Evidence for Policy Design at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Patricia Cortes, Claudia Goldin and Jennifer Peck examine the extent to which limited availability, high cost or low quality of childcare deters Saudi mothers from working. The authors conducted focus groups and electronically surveyed 2,000 women ages 18 to 40 years old residing in the cities of Dammam, Jeddah and Riyadh about their experiences with work and childcare.

Main findings:

  • The largest uptake of childcare support programs was private sector maternity leave. 
  • Nearly 25 percent of respondents were eligible for Qurrah, a government program that provides childcare subsidies for mothers working in the private sector below a certain income level, and around 15 percent used it.
  • Most working mothers (56 percent) rely on domestic workers or nannies, on which they spend about one-fifth of their income.
  • The most common reason mothers were not searching for jobs was the desire to focus on their children. Less than one-fifth of mothers who were not working cited lack of affordable or high-quality childcare as at least one reason they were not looking for a job.

Overall, the survey results indicate low utilization of government-subsidized childcare programs is not due to low awareness of the programs, but rather because many women prefer to use private childcare or a domestic worker or are ineligible to use the programs. To further reduce access to childcare as a barrier to women’s employment, the authors recommend policymakers increase promotion and uptake of remote work options and evaluate private sector childcare support programs to ensure they compensate for longer working hours and potentially lower pay that may make it harder for working mothers to care for their children.

Read the Policy Brief