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The Motherhood Penalty

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While maternity may be a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, it has long been recognised that a ‘motherhood penalty’ exists. In the business world, the motherhood penalty impacts on aspects of women’s careers such as pay, promotion and the ability to gain good quality employment. Researchers have studied the ‘motherhood wage gap’ which compares salaries between working mothers, women without children and working fathers. It has been suggested that the ‘motherhood penalty’ makes up 80% of the gender pay gap. A small gender pay gap that exists between men and women in their 20’s, but it starts to widen when women hit their 30’s and start to have children.

Stereotypes, employer expectations and bias can all contribute to this gap, combined with the fact that women are more likely to bear the brunt of household duties and childcare. In 1989, sociologists Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung referred to this as the ‘second shift’; the household and childcare duties that follow a days labour, which are predominantly covered by women. This trend remains enduring since the book was written in 1989, with the ONS reporting that women do an average of 60% more unpaid work than men.

However, the cost of childcare remains an issue which impacts on women’s ability to remain within the labour market. The UK holds the rather dubious position of ranking top of OECD countries in terms of childcare costs proportionate to women’s salaries. A recent report by Coram showed the average annual cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two in Great Britain is now £14,836, with average costs rising by 5.9% in the past year. Without access to affordable childcare, paternity policies that allow men to spend more time with their children, and societal shifts in perceptions about motherhood and the role of women in society, the motherhood penalty will endure. However, it celebrates the work that mothers do, an area of interest for sociologists who recognise motherhood as a contributor to inequality and disadvantage.

Do you have an idea about how businesses can tackle the Motherhood Penalty? The FT has launched its annual Women in Business essay competition in partnership with the 30% Club and Henley Business School. The prize is a fully funded place on Henley’s part-time Executive MBA programme.

This year’s question is: ‘Affordable and flexible childcare is a challenge that concerns everyone. What role can employers and policymakers play?’

The deadline is 22 May 2023.

Dr Melissa Carr

Lecturer in International Human Resource Management
Published 19 March 2023
Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

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