They call it the “motherhood penalty”, and young women know all about it. When they’re not being harangued by experts (psychologists, gynaecologists, sociologists and the like) to stop “putting off” starting a family, they’re watching older female colleagues who have already taken the plunge immediately paying the price.
From the year-long project you’re written out of because you’re pregnant, to the evening meetings missed due to childcare, from the male managers who assume mothers to be less dedicated to their work, to the women forced to limit their horizons by a lack of high-skilled part-time roles: young women are watching and waiting – because they can see exactly what’s in store for them once they stop waiting and start procreating.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the gender pay gap – which still, astoundingly, sits at 18 per cent – balloons for women who have children. Mothers aren’t just losing out because they’re working fewer hours, they are missing out on promotions and related pay rises too. This is the price of motherhood.
And now we can quantify that price: becoming a mother effectively equates to a 33 per cent pay cut over the first 12 years of the first child’s life, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Becoming a dad? Not so much.
The situation is more marked for those mothers in better-paid positions requiring third level qualifications. While ‘equal pay for equal work’ rules have changed the culture for jobs paid the hour – you can’t get away with paying a woman less than her male equal in a shop, for instance, because you’d be breaking the law – when it comes to the salaried work of higher-educated men and women, nothing has changed between the sexes in two decades. Absolutely nothing.
As a woman (currently childless, incidentally, but young enough that it is still a possibility), anger at this state of affairs might be interpreted as special pleading. Having children is a “lifestyle choice”, and it requires compromise, critics might argue. So what?
But it is to embark on the great project of parenting, not motherhood: that is the lifestyle choice. Two people are usually involved in that decision, yet only one is making the compromise.
And it’s not just about mothering and work: the “motherhood penalty” is actually a problem for all women – because childcare obligations or none, the workplace culture that creates the gender pay gap means most women are missing out on pay or opportunities they would be entitled to as men. Worse, seeing the price that women pay makes men understandably more reluctant to take advantage of positive new policies allowing shared maternity and paternity leave, entrenching the situation. And those who have no children but may have other reasons to desire highly skilled, well-paid part-time employment are scared to ask for it, fearing they’ll lose out.
Can anything be done about it? There are some reasons for hope.
First, the Millennial generation has a very different attitude to work to the baby boomers and Generation X: work-life balance is not a desire but a demand for younger workers. A study for the consultancy EY found that Millennials would be happy to take a pay cut or forego a promotion to have a better work-life balance. One in six, however, reported that their requests for such flexibility at work did have negative consequences, as their baby boomer bosses (who were also, incidentally, more likely to be the breadwinner in a single-earner family) failed to understand the pressures of being time poor in a dual income household.
As these young people become managers, that career penalty will likely be reduced, and the ability to find high-quality, well-remunerated part-time opportunities increased.
Second, the culture of presenteeism, which has for decades worked against anyone with childcare or other caring responsibilities, is on the wane. The digital shift means jobs are not only possible to undertake remotely but may actively benefit from workers choosing to do so. Again, their emphasis on environmentalism means Millennials as managers may show a willingness to remove the social costs of the daily commute. This means working mothers will be judged less harshly at work for balancing their responsibilities. The motherhood penalty should reduce as promotions and pay rises continue.
But there are two things that we can do to make change happen. We need to think again about what a “successful career” looks like. Is it a linear progression, promotion upon promotion until the day we draw our pension? Or does work look more like a portfolio of projects, a series of successes with periods during which we step back? Recognising success as being about more than the corner office would liberate men and women, mothers and fathers and the child-free to do their best work, while removing the structures that create a motherhood penalty too.
And finally, how about a bit of coercion? In Sweden, where shared parenting is now so popular that men who refuse to take the first three months of their child’s life away from work are viewed as cold fish, the policy was at first something of a failure. Companies and individuals had to be pushed, and a culture change followed. We, too, need a “use it or lose it” clause for all co-parenting policies. Because if everyone’s sharing the risk of what was once known as “mothering”, then the risk starts to dissipate altogether. After all, it’s not possible to impose a ‘penalty’ on everyone.
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