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Home Opinion The motherhood penalty
Motherhood • Employment • Equality

The motherhood penalty

Dalia Ben-Galim - 12 June 2014

Despite women’s increased employment rates, rising levels of educational attainment, and high rates of breadwinning, gender inequality is still pervasive. There is virtually no gender pay gap until the point at which women become mothers. But then a motherhood penalty takes hold where many women find themselves on a downward career trajectory often characterised by low-paid jobs with few opportunities for progression.

Universal and affordable childcare, parental leave policies and flexible work opportunities are essential to not only protect families from poverty, but to support higher employment rates and the future sustainability of social policies.

1.    Economic competitiveness depends on a growing female workforce
Female employment rates have steadily risen over the past few decades, but in too many countries there is a gap between the female employment rate and the maternal employment rate. Many mothers are ‘missing from work’. The same could be said for women who are caring for elderly relatives and/or spouses. Moving towards full employment requires lifting the employment rates of particular groups that include mothers and carers. Ignoring the reasons why these employment rates are comparatively low carries economic consequences.  

2.    Enabling choices to work and care will support growth

Social policy plays an important role enabling workers to balance work and care responsibilities. For example, childcare often supports women to (re)enter work, and parental leave policies contribute to women staying in work. Too often parents – and especially mothers – are forced to make a decision between work and care. This can have a negative impact on individuals, families, and society where people are constrained by binary choices. But of course, it’s not simply the role of social policy, employers have a role to play in providing employees at all levels adaptability rather than rigid flexibility that has been too common. These policies can not only support many women with caring responsibilities to remain in work, contributing to higher rates of employment; but can provide men with opportunities to work more flexibility tackling gender inequalities and cultural stereotypes.

3.    High-quality affordable childcare is essential to boost the maternal employment rate
An early years system that is universal, high-quality and affordable boosts maternal employment rates. High-quality provision can also better support living standards, offer children a positive start in their education, tackle child poverty and promote gender equality. Too many mothers’ choices to work are constrained by the high costs and variable quality of childcare provision. This leaves many families struggling to make ends meet. Higher maternal employment rates can also generate a financial return through additional tax revenue and benefit savings that could be invested to ensure high quality provision.

4.    Parental leave schemes that invest in family time mitigate ‘motherhood pay penalty’
Progressive parental leave for the first year in a child’s life can address a number of objectives, on attachment and bonding, on retaining mother’s link to labour market, on enabling fathers to spend more time with their children, and challenging the gendered assumptions of work and care.
The duration and pay of leave policies matter. For example, if maternity leave is too long or not paid at a reasonable rate, it tends to lock women out of work for longer periods making it more difficult for them to (re)enter work, and lock fathers out of caring.

There is growing consensus that the optimal composition of parental leave should include a defined period of maternity leave to protect the health of mother and baby, a ‘use it or lose it’ paternity leave for fathers and then paid parental leave for parents to decide how to use. The ‘use it or lost it’ daddy quota has been effective at encouraging fathers to take a period of leave, but also in weakening the motherhood pay penalty.

5.    Flexible work can work for employers and employees
Employment rates for women over 50 have rapidly increased, but remain below men’s employment rates. Flexible working and leave policies provide critical support to those balancing work and care responsibilities. They also provide opportunities for people to extend their working lives, which is increasingly important as the state pension age rises. Many of these women are also part of the ‘sandwich generation’ often caring across generations for their parents and children or grandchildren. Many older women provide vital support to families which often enables other family members to (re-)enter the workforce. The contribution that older women make to their families and to the economy needs to be more widely recognised. Leave schemes, ways to smooth income over periods out of work and support for grandparents who look after their grandchildren are all part of social policy provision fitting for current demographic and social trends.

6.    Childcare and caring through life are political

No longer is childcare defined to the private sphere. It is clear that understanding care needs and the ability for families – especially women – to balance work and care is political. Recognition that these policies contribute to higher employment rates are likely to prove popular electorally.

Dalia Ben-Galim is an associate director at IPPR

This is a contribution to the “Making Progressive Politics Work” publication which informed the Amsterdam Progressive Governance Conference 2014.
This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

Tags: Opinion , Progressive Governance Conference , Progressive Governance , Growth , Social stability , Living standards , Policy Network , Global Progress , Competitiveness , Growth , Solidarity , Globalisation , Centre-left , Centre-left , Europe , EU , European Union , Eurozone , Southern Europe , Northern Europe , Production , Productivity , Growth , Wages , Investment , Jobs , Globalisation , Equality , Pre-distribution

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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