Women in Tech

Balancing act: tackling the 'motherhood penalty'

9th November 2023
Sheryl Miles

Research by a charity championing equality has revealed that approximately 250,000 mothers with young children have resigned from their positions due to childcare challenges.

This trend is simultaneously preventing a significant number of women from seizing career advancement opportunities.

The Fawcett Society, a UK membership charity who campaign for gender equality and women’s rights at work, home, and in public life, has observed an unprecedented number of mothers in the workforce, yet they encounter what is effectively a 'motherhood penalty' – a stagnation in career progression.

Jane Lorigan, CEO of Totaljobs, emphasises the necessity for workplaces to evolve to support mothers amidst acute labour shortages. The sentiment is echoed by Jemima Olchawski, CEO of the Fawcett Society, who notes the brief duration mothers spend caring for young children compared to their entire working lives. She criticises the persistent outdated prejudices which limit women's professional opportunities.

Moreover, the survey uncovered that 75% of working parents have been compelled to take unpaid leave to manage childcare, disproportionately affecting women from non-white backgrounds and single mothers. Olchawski calls for tangible supportive policies, not just in writing but in practice, advocating for genuinely family-friendly workplaces.

Olchawski points to inadequate flexible work options, unaffordable childcare, and persisting detrimental stereotypes about motherhood as factors impeding women's professional advancement. According to Olchawski, mothers often find themselves in part-time or less-skilled roles post-childbirth.

The society's research, involving 3,000 working parents and carried out with Totaljobs, underscores the shortage of flexible working setups for mothers of children under four, with less than a third finding their needs met. The study highlights that a significant number of mothers, and a comparable proportion of fathers, have declined promotions or career opportunities due to childcare concerns.

The Fawcett Society warns that the failure to employ and promote qualified mothers not only undermines the UK economy by curtailing productivity but also perpetuates the gender pay gap. It calls for businesses to support mothers more actively, rather than relegating them to sidelined roles.

Despite the widespread assumption that motherhood dampens career aspirations, the Fawcett Society reports that the ambition remains undiminished among mothers, with many feeling even more driven post-childbirth. Yet, two-thirds express feeling their workplace contributions are underestimated.

The government has responded to the call for action with a substantial investment in childcare, offering 30 hours of free childcare weekly, supported by a yearly £8 billion fund once fully operational. It has also introduced the Flexible Working Bill, which mandates employers to consider flexible working requests and provide justification for any rejections, part of a broader strategy to understand the benefits of informal flexible working arrangements.

These measures are designed to support working parents and address the vital issue of mothers being sidelined in their careers due to childcare constraints. As the workforce contracts, it becomes increasingly crucial to retain and support the talents of working mothers, ensuring they have the opportunity to thrive in their chosen professions.

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