The motherhood pay penalty

There was depressing news for working women this week. More than four decades after the Equal Pay Act, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that women are earning 18% less per hour than men on average.

The research showed that this pay gap increases markedly if women have children – growing year-on-year after childbirth and hitting 33% by the time the child is 12 – suggesting mums are missing out on pay rises and promotions in the workplace, and instead suffering from a motherhood pay penalty.

The IFS study echoes TUC findings from earlier this year. A report we published with the IPPR confirmed the existence of this motherhood pay penalty. While the IFS study rightly highlights the impact that working part-time can have on the pay gap, our report looked at women working full-time and showed that there is still a significant pay penalty for women who have returned to full-time work after having children, if they had them before the age of 33.

The TUC’s General Secretary Frances O’Grady has called this motherhood pay discrepancy a "scandal". All mothers should be supported and treated fairly in the workplace, regardless of the age at which they have their children, their seniority in the workplace or whether they work full or part-time. So, why is this still happening?

Our evidence suggests that despite talk about parents taking a more equal approach to childcare, too many women are still shouldering the load. Women remain the primary care-givers and they are still far more likely than men to reduce their working hours after having children. And, too often, women still face discrimination at work – and can struggle to get access to justice when they do.

A lack of well-paid, part-time or other flexible jobs and affordable childcare mean many women drop out of the workplace or reduce their hours until their children are at school, missing out on vital years of experience and earning potential.

What’s the answer? At the current snail’s pace rate we are going it’s going to take us decades to close the gender pay gap so we urgently need a step change in both government policy and employer attitudes to fix the problem.

Firstly, a good start would be support for more equal parenting roles to stop women being held back at work. Shared parental leave is a step in the right direction, but we know take up is very low due to lack of incentives for fathers to take the leave. The Government should introduce better paid ‘dads only’ leave that would encourage fathers to a more active role in parenting, which would benefit them and their children.

Secondly, free childcare provision from the end of maternity leave, rather than age three, would also help. More free childcare would help minimise the pay penalty for single mothers, who we know face significant barriers to paid work, especially when their children are very young. Single parents are still less than half as likely as couple parents to be in work when their children are under five. And free childcare from the end of maternity leave would help younger mothers with less seniority and lower pay to stay in work after having children.

And thirdly, much more must also be done to open up higher skilled, better paid jobs to flexible working or reduced hours. There are very few good quality job opportunities being advertised with flexible or part-time work options – just 6% of those advertised with a full-time equivalent of £19,500 or more. This would really help keep mums in the labour market and it would enable more women in part-time roles to continue to progress, rather than getting stuck in low-paid, part-time work after having children.

We’ve also got to see better enforcement of legislation against discrimination linked to pregnancy and childbirth. A recent EHRC survey on pregnancy discrimination found incredibly high levels of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, affecting 77% of mothers and forcing tens of thousands of women out of their jobs each year. Younger mothers are much more likely to report discrimination –  a fifth said they were dismissed or were treated so badly that they were forced out of their jobs because of pregnancy or maternity leave, compared to one in ten mothers overall.

And these women who experience pregnancy or maternity discrimination must have access to justice. It currently costs £1,200 to take a claim to tribunal, and even workers employed on the minimum wage have to pay these fees if a member of their household has savings of £3,000. Many mums would struggle to find this cash to spare, especially when a new baby has just arrived. The Government needs to abolish employment tribunal fees to ensure all women – and in fact all workers – are able to take a claim to enforce their basic rights at work.

Alice Hood is Head of Equality at TUC