Working mothers and discrimination

06Oct 16

Why does taking maternity leave mean you earn less? Why are things worse than ten years ago? Why are so many top female politicians ‘childless’? Kamwell looks at the issues and what can be done

It’s been an interesting summer for those interested in the ‘work-life balance’ of women in the UK. If by ‘life’, you mean whether and when women have children.

In August, a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that working mothers face a growing pay gap compared with their male colleagues, from the moment they return from maternity leave. A young woman working full-time without children earns about 6 per cent less than her male counterparts. After giving birth, this wage differential increases over the next ten years until it’s at more than 30 per cent.

It’s now undeniable that in the UK, giving birth to a child reduces your chances of getting promotions and pay rises. Research for the Chartered Management Institute  shows that the pay gap between men and women has failed to close in the past year because more men were promoted up the management chain than women.

At the end of August, the Women and Equalities select committee released a report showing that the number of expectant and new mothers forced to leave their jobs has almost doubled — to 54,000 — since 2005. Currently, 77 per cent of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination at work, compared with 45 per cent a decade ago, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Last week, some of Britain’s leading businesses announced they were joining forces to tackle pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace. The coalition, which includes Barclays, Royal Mail and the BT group, aims to set an example and encourage other businesses to follow suit.

If workplace discrimination against mothers is getting worse, and having children damages their earnings, does it follow that women at the top of their industries must choose not — or be unable — to have children?

When Theresa May became prime minister, it reignited interest in why so many senior female politicians around the world are childless. A coincidence, or a sign that there’s something wrong with the system? May, Nicola Sturgeon (who recently revealed she’d had a miscarriage in 2011), Angela Merkel in Germany and Julia Gillard in Australia are often cited as examples.

Is it because having children holds women back in politics? Do they effectively have to choose between trying for a family or for the top jobs? Male politicians aren’t judged in the same way.

So many questions, so many disappointing statistics — so what are the answers?

For starters, it’s not all down to employers to fix these problems. Government policies on things like childcare provision and statutory maternity and paternity pay could be improved. The select committee’s report also recommended some changes in discrimination law.

These include a system of protection for female employees similar to Germany’s, which makes it very hard for employees to be dismissed during pregnancy or within the first four months after giving birth.

Another key recommendation was to drastically reduce the £1,200 fee, and double the three-month limit, for taking an employer to tribunal for pregnancy-related discrimination. More protection was also suggested for women who are casual, agency and zero-hours workers.

For employers, most of the practical measures they can take to address gender inequality involve flexible working. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which commissioned the IFS study, said that part of the problem was that most employers still failed to offer flexible working hours or jobshares for more senior jobs.

It described a ‘sticky floor’ faced by many women who work part-time; they’re not considered for promotion or salary increases because they’re not working full-time.

What about men?

Flexible working is vital for women, but it’s an important part of employee wellbeing for men and women alike. Men have a ‘work-life balance’ too. They’d like to work from home or do the school run sometimes.

A survey by management consultants McKinsey found that half of American fathers with one child said they wouldn’t take a job offering a worse work-life balance. Fifty-five per cent of women said the same, so male-female views aren’t as different as you might expect.

The key to unlocking the women and work discrimination puzzle is to encourage more enlightened attitudes, and change expectations. The arguments in favour of flexible working, with all the benefits it can bring to employees, are well rehearsed. But nothing changes — because it’s attitudes that need to change.

Sweden is often cited as a great example of a country that encourages equality and good working practices. It’s the norm for Swedish dads to take shared parental leave — when parents take leave in turns, or at the same time, after the birth of a child.

Although the pay for this is more generous in Sweden than in the UK, Swedish men didn’t start didn’t taking up the option until the government threw in some extra annual leave as a sweetener. That was when it became something you’d be silly to forgo, so attitudes changed.

A change in attitude could also help women under scrutiny in high-profile public jobs. If newspapers must list ‘childless’ politicians or CEOs, they should include men in those lists (they never do). Better still, stop using the word childless, or even asking if a professional woman has children.

The expectations placed on working men and women are not the same when it comes to having and bringing up children. Attitudes are fixed and assumptions are made. For the sake of employee wellbeing (not just women’s), more flexible working and equal treatment should become the norm. That’s the message for employers, the government and the nation.

Imagine a world where we don’t stigmatise working women who don’t have children, and are just as interested in how working men juggle their childcare. Where there’s hardly any discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers, because the law is so effective. Where employees feel equally valued, whatever their family set-up.

If this world was a company, it would surely be healthy, popular and successful place to work.