The Motherhood Penalty

Jana Javornik
Associate Professor of Work and Employment Relations, Interim Director-General of Higher Education at Government of Slovenia, Ministry of Education, Science and Sport

When Marissa Mayer, a CEO of Yahoo at the time, announced she would take limited parental leave, her decision prompted much debate about ‘proper’ motherhood.

Mayer ‘broke’ the social norm by managing her family and work as numerous male CEOs have done for ages: by leaving childcare to others. Although more companies are now offering paid parental leave, also to fathers, only a few CEO dads opt to care for children full-time. But men are judged differently when it comes to parenthood.

Progress made but more to be done

The ideals about motherhood and fatherhood are based on different social assumptions about gender roles. In the 1980s, people in the UK believed that mums should be at home, and dads should be working. Over the past three decades, such views have become less traditional. According to NatCen, almost 30% still think that pre-school children suffer if a mother works (46% in 1989), and a third think that mothers of pre-schoolers should stay at home (64% in 1989).

That said, the position of women in the labour market in the UK is of long-standing concern, with progress made but ongoing challenges including occupational segregation and gender imbalances still present. Although women outperform men in overall educational attainment, they consistently fail to reap the rewards. Since the Equal Pay Act in 1970, legislative change has been instrumental in affecting positive change for women’s opportunities in the labour market. However, despite long-standing attention to structural and normative/legislative factors, evidence persists of gendered vocational choices, the clustering of women in low-valued work, working below potential, and barriers to progression. Those with children, caring responsibilities and of some ethnicities fare particularly badly.

Women now make up just short of half the workforce. It is vital they have access to higher quality jobs and equal opportunities as we search for productivity gains.

We need to rethink notions of ‘normal’ working patterns and practices to shape jobs for a more diverse workforce and improve opportunities, pay and progression for all women. While women are forecast to play a stronger role in the world of work in future, in the private sector, and where job growth is expected, for example in the care sector, highly feminised and low-graded jobs with few prospects are a concern. The financial sector, however, employs similar numbers of younger men and women, yet disadvantageous occupational concentration by gender is greater than in the economy as a whole. Moreover, women’s representation in AI-related jobs is poor, with women holding only 22% of these jobs.

What does this mean for women?

Motherhood is one of the main determinants of women’s inactivity in the UK labour market. Employment rates for women aged 25–49 with children under six are approximately 20 percentage points lower than for women without children of that age. Furthermore, 32% of those aged 15–64 with care responsibilities would like to work but can’t, compared with 8.3% in Sweden. Often, women also experience difficulties in returning to work after maternity leave or career breaks. Lack of adequate and affordable childcare, including after-school provision, is the main reason for women not working or seeking employment, or taking the ‘mummy track’, an interrupted career route and one disadvantageous in terms of pay, status and advancement.

Women also increasingly leave jobs mid-career. Many want to switch to flexible work, but this is not widely accessible. Workers can be affected by the expectation from managers to donate off-hours and long days as they balance demanding work commitments, commuting schedules, and caring responsibilities, leading to women leaving employment at different stages.

Looking to the future

Designing good jobs that allow workers to balance paid and unpaid commitments while fully utilising and rewarding their skills puts employer leadership in the spotlight. Although norms in the labour market are shaped by deep-rooted cultural attitudes, some employers are innovating for positive change. It is each country’s government policies around leave, including sick leave, childcare and flexible working that create the contexts within which employers and employees operate; these either bolster or undermine parents’ opportunities to ask for and use flexible options, the former enabling mothers to lead a life they have reason to value.

Returnships – the UK return-to-work programmes – are one such response. But while these funds recognise the difficulties many women face when taking time out and do show public commitment to support their return to work, they are a drop in the ocean. Namely, they are predominantly aimed at highly skilled women in management and professional services. We can see that returnships will not fix the career break penalty, particularly when public investment in affordable high-quality and flexible public childcare, care alternatives and shared parenting remain patchy.

Public policies that support families to work, and are closely connected to ideals of gender equity, prevail in social-democratic countries such as Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden. In this policy culture, both fathers and mothers are expected to stay in the labour market across a life course – this significantly shapes one’s prospects for adequate income during working lives and into retirement. Moreover, paid parental and sick leave are offered to all parents as an individual right and public childcare services have been maintained as a collective right. In Sweden, for example, the government also introduced a gender equality bonus, giving a higher compensation when fathers use parental leave, in addition to offering women time off from work to breastfeed. The success of such policies is reflected in higher take-up of shared parental leave by men, high levels of social investment in public childcare and use of public childcare for very young children. These countries also record highest maternal employment rates and lowest gender gaps in pay and in time spent doing chores. In fact, research indicates that trading-off chores and sharing childcare between parents – more common in these countries – also leads to a happier sex life.

In the current economic climate, when companies are in pursuit of cheaper production and lower labour costs, it is timely to ask what we want from the state and how political parties plan to assure the wellbeing of workers and their children. Because childbearing years correspond with the years of core economic activity (when wages and skills should continue to grow), it is important that Government designs public policies that support workplace sustainability and work/life balance of all workers. Let’s not forget that the vast majority are not super rich like Marissa Mayer and that not everyone works for a family-friendly employer. Thus, social investment in good public policies and services is ever more important. It should not be just for survival but for quality of life and one’s capability to lead a life one has reason to value. This requires rethinking the Government’s role and putting wellbeing at the heart of what it does.

Find out more

  • Asset 25 ‘Social Policy and the Capability Approach: Concepts, Measurements and Application’ edited by Mara Yerkes, Jana Javornik, Anna Kurowska
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