The Motherhood Penalty in the Workplace

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The motherhood penalty is the price women pay for growing their families whilst being part of the workforce. There is a range of reasons for this penalty from high childcare costs and inadequate leave to bias from employers. A study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 77% of working mothers surveyed had potentially discriminatory or negative experiences. The statutory protections designed to help mothers have not been effective in re-balancing the discrimination faced. There is a lack of flexible working arrangements alongside no affordable childcare options and outdated and toxic views surrounding working mothers which holds them back in the workplace.

Maternity and Discrimination

Research by Pregnant Then Screwed found that 52% of mothers have faced some form of discrimination while pregnant, while on maternity leave, or when they return to work. This discrimination is a form of the motherhood penalty and can cause women to be unfairly dismissed or pushed out of their previous position.
Mothers will receive several statutory rights from the time they become pregnant including up to 52 weeks maternity leave, the potential for shared parental leave and the right to return to the same job or in limited circumstances a suitable alternative role. They also have the protection against dismissal, or discrimination because of pregnancy, childbirth or taking maternity leave as well as being able to request for flexible working for any reason.

Despite these protections, women will still face a penalty in the workforce from flexible options being rejected to shared parental leave not levelling the playing field the way that it was believed to. The take up by fathers for paternity leave has been low with only around 2% of those eligible taking shared leave. This may be due to financial concerns with the higher pay earner remaining in employment while their partner stays at home.

This is a complex issue for HR teams to help solve. By offering enhanced pay beyond that of the statutory, it may encourage more men to take leave. Alongside reviewing these policies, HR and businesses should also do more to promote the take up of shared parental leave and help reduce the stigma.
HR must look to develop policies to manage leave and provide guidance to managers on how to smoothly make plans for their return.
The government has also extended redundancy protection to include a six-month period following the mother’s return to work. Businesses must make sure they understand these new protections and advise their people accordingly.

Primary Caregiver

While there have been many societal changes, women are still far more likely to be the primary caregiver. Research has shown that by the time a woman’s first child is twenty, on average they would have been in paid work for four years less than men. In 1989 sociologists Hochschild and Machung referred to these extra hours as the ‘second shift’ with the ONS reporting women do an average of 60% more unpaid labour than men.

A 2023 study by the OECD found that mothers were also found to be 1.5 times more likely to spend an additional three hours per day on housework and childcare compared to fathers. This extra time means that they have less time than fathers and co-workers without children to focus on curating their career path.

For employees, the culture of the organisation needs to be considered – if people are rewarded for working above contractual hours whether that is via performance bonuses or recognition schemes, this creates a culture where parents who can only work their contractual hours are seen as less committed to their jobs, which causes them to lose out on potential promotions and career growth. Instead using diversity data to review all decisions such as performance evaluations, pay-rises and bonuses can help reduce the risk of bias.

Childcare Costs

The cost of childcare can drive women to leave the workplace or reduce their hours, which in turn can cause some negative societal assumptions about women’s commitment, drive and flexibility in the workplace. It has been estimated that a quarter of a million mothers with young children have been driven out of the workplace.

The UK holds the ranking as the top of OECD countries in terms of childcare costs proportionate to women’s salaries with a report by Coram showing that the average nursery place for a child under 2 is £14,836 which is 5.9% higher than the previous year. The continuously rising cost of childcare is disproportionately forcing women out of the workforce or into part-time positions as the default primary caregiver.

In March 2023, the Government announced that the existing 30 hours of free childcare available to working parent in England will extend to cover all children from nine month’s old to school age to help more women remain in work. Employers can help with the impact of childcare through offering flexible working options that would all mothers to accommodate their childcare responsibility, communicate about the governments tax free childcare scheme, thirty free childcare hours to all staff members.
HR can help make it easier for parents to find childcare by providing information on local childcare provisions. For larger organisations, an on-site nursery could be an option.

Hiring Mothers

Mothers were six times less likely than childless women to be recommended for hire, and childless women are 8.2 times more likely to be recommended for a promotion than mothers. These statistics help to showcase how women who are looking for work are penalised for having a family. This penalisation is due to a bias in how mothers are seen by employees with a recent study from the Gender Action Portal shows that mothers were 12.1% less committed to their jobs than a childless woman, while fathers were 5% more committed to their job than childless men.
It was also found that mothers were recommended a 7.9% lower starting salary than non-mothers, whereas fathers were offered a significantly higher starting salary than childless men.

This is significant in showcasing how this not a parenthood penalty, but a motherhood one, with men being rewarded and seen more positively when having a family than women. This is likely due to traditional gender norms where women are expected to be the primary caregiver as well as the one more likely to take leave if a child is sick or if their childcare arrangements fall through.

The Fawcett Society research showcases how many women are stuck on roles below their capabilities and miss out on opportunities to progress their careers, instead being stuck on the ‘mummy track’. Two-fifths of working mothers responded that they had turned down a promotion or career development opportunity due to concerns about childcare arrangements.

These findings point to how the government needs to prioritise ending the motherhood penalty with more funding for childcare to stop these women’s talents in the workforce going to waste.HR play a key role in the prevention of this discrimination in the hiring process by ensuring that it remains high on the priority list for business, as well as making sure that organisations is aware of the legal landscape and the rights of mothers. This can be done through regular training and communication of policies and procedures.

Find out more about inclusive hiring here

The issue of the motherhood penalty in the workplace is a complex and multifaceted challenge that needs comprehensive solutions. The various factors contributing to this penalty, from childcare costs and inadequate leave to biased attitudes from employers, create a barrier for women striving to balance family life with a professional career.

Despite statutory protections in place, the reality reveals a stark disparity, with discrimination persisting through pregnancy, maternity leave, and return to work. The burden of unpaid care work disproportionately falls on women, impacting their career trajectories and perpetuating gender-based inequities. The government’s recent initiatives, such as extending redundancy protection and increasing free childcare hours, are steps in the right direction, but more is still needed. Organisations must actively combat biased hiring practices, challenge traditional gender norms, and foster inclusive cultures that value and support working mothers.

Find out more about how XCD have helped organisations improve their DE&I here .