Third of all mothers 'abandon careers'

Inflexible employers refusing to adapt hours to suit working mothers force many women to give up their jobs
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The Independent Online

More than one-third of mothers who return to work after the birth of their first child give up their full-time careers within two years, research shows.

More than one-third of mothers who return to work after the birth of their first child give up their full-time careers within two years, research shows.

The findings from two studies reveal that although many mothers want to continue working after they have had a child, they find it impossible to balance work and family life.

The research shows that employers are so inflexible that mothers are forced to sacrifice their careers to prevent their families from suffering too much. Many employers would not consider making working hours more flexible, job sharing or part-time alternatives.

One of the studies by Bristol University of 560 mothers who returned to full-time work after the birth of their first child showed that, within two years, 17 per cent had switched to part-time work and 19 per cent had given up all together.

The large proportion of women giving up high profile, well-paid jobs was a surprise, said Susan Harkness, an economist from the University of Sussex, who conducted a second smaller study of 73 mothers to explore why they had decided to stop working. "We found that women who returned to full-time work did so when their children were very young. We also found that they tended to work very long hours," she said. "There was not accommodation or reduction in hours prior to and after the birth of a child. So there was no accommodation within their jobs to account for the fact that they now had responsibilities for a very young child."

In Britain, a nationwide survey of 30,000 women by the Government showed that more than half of mothers believed that balancing work and family life was the most important issue facing women. Official figures reveal that two-thirds of mothers return to work after maternity leave, 70 per cent of whom would do so even if they could afford to stay at home.

However, the new research, commissioned by the BBC's Panorama programme, is the first to show that although large numbers of mothers return to work, it is impossible for many to continue for very long.

Melanie Diamond, a 36-year-old lawyer from north London, gave up a well-paid job in the City two years ago because, she claimed, her employers would not give her flexibility in her job. "I wanted to start 15 minutes later at 9.45am rather than 9.30 so I could take my son to school as he was having a few problems, but I was not allowed to do it," she said.

Mrs Diamond, who has three sons aged seven, six and three, said the long hours culture and her employers' inflexibility forced her to give up her career. "I was depriving my children by giving them none of my time," she said. "I could not spend time playing with them or helping them with homework. The oldest one was very miserable."

She said she would love to go back to work three days a week, but there were very few jobs for part-time lawyers. "I have a 2:1 law degree, have spent six years training to be a solicitor, as well as years of experience, and have specialised in litigation. Of course I would like to work, but I have to be realistic about it," she said.

Professor Heather Joshi, from the Institute of Education, who is conducting research on the lives of 9,000 people born in 1970, has found that children whose mothers worked in their pre-school years were less likely to "advance one rung of the education ladder". Girls were 10 per cent less likely to progress from GCSEs to A-levels and boys were 12 per cent less likely. "Maybe having had a mother at home when they were under five equips them better," she said. "I do feel that parents need more choice and flexibility about how much time they can spend with their children."

Ruth Lea, from the Institute of Directors, said that 45 per cent of companies thought twice about taking on women of prime childbearing age because of maternity legislation. She said any moves to impose more legal rights for new mothers, such as offering them their old job but on a part-time basis, would mean that employers would be less willing to employ women of that age.