The 'Motherhood Penalty' & Parental Leave Pay

The 'Motherhood Penalty' & Parental Leave Pay

Eliza Serna-Cochrane discusses how UK legislation and workplace discrimination makes it difficult for new mothers to return to full-time work and explores how business owners can change this

By Eliza Serna-Cochrane

There has never been so much attention paid to the gender-pay gap as there is today. And yet the more we look at it, the more we understand its pervasiveness throughout our culture, along with the deeper manifestations. 

Towards the end of 2019, the University of Bristol finished up a long-term study that involved over 3,500 couples. The findings revealed that fewer than one-third of women re-entered the world of work full-time after becoming a mother, and that motherhood essentially involved the complete sacrifice of self-employment status. On the other hand, more than 90% of new fathers were unaffected, and continued on as normal. 

The Bristol study helped to put in numbers a particular manifestation of the gender-pay gap: the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’. And while it might be easy to dismiss its findings as mere personal decisions between new mothers and fathers, the reality is that this penalty is not just personal. On the contrary, current UK law emboldens it. 

Good intentions and ‘Shared Parental Leave’ 

That government legislation penalizes women for having children is an unplanned consequence of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government. Back in 2015, both the Shared Parental Leave and Statutory Parental Pay legislation came into law. But the intentions of both were to encourage parents to spread out their child care duties evenly. 

Unfortunately, both pieces of legislation were flawed. The biggest (and strangest) flaw, was that initially there was no mention of the 1.7 million women who work independently; freelance or self-employed across the country. The second major flaw was that no legal requirement was put in place that made it mandatory for businesses to pay both men and women equally for taking parental leave. 

What makes the second flaw so problematic is that, whenever a new father decides he is going to take shared parental leave, he is paid either a statutory rate of £148.68 a week or 90% of his salary (whichever sum is the lowest). Whereas new mothers, by contrast, get what’s known as “enhanced pay”.

Because the overwhelming majority of British businesses already pay their male colleagues more than their female colleagues, most businesses show little enthusiasm for matching male workers’ pay to that of the enhanced pay of the new mothers. This fact seemed to be confirmed by the Working Families charity, which in a study found that most companies showed a reluctance to match shared parental leave payments. The lack of incentive is that, in short, matching payments costs businesses more money. 

Working to end the discrimination 

Inevitably this discrimination came to a head earlier in the year, after the successful struggles of one remarkable self-employed woman, Olga Fitzroy, the founder of the Parental Pay Equality campaign. After deriding the discriminatory rules as “something belonging to the 1950s”, she managed to get the current Conservative government to promise a review of the old Coalition’s policies on shared parental leave. 

In the meantime the Parental Pay Equality campaign has also done some research into the gender-pay gap on its own. A particularly powerful survey found that not even one out of every five women manages to claw back the earning power they enjoyed, two years after giving birth. And for self-employed women, the situation is especially true. Largely, no doubt, because of the additional uncertainties that self-employment can bring. Along with there being no guaranteed work for self-employed mothers afterwards, and also because being a mother will undoubtedly mean sacrificing some valuable networking time.  

Discrimination at work

Poorly-thought-out government legislation is not the only barrier that women face in the workplace that contributes to the motherhood penalty. There is a far more insidious factor at play, and that is sexual discrimination. 

When women take maternity leave — or any time at all away from work to tend to children — this is almost inevitably always viewed unfavourably by the hiring managers. (The situation is even worse in construction and in the eyes of STEM managers.) There is the concern that any career breaks at all, no matter what their purpose, will quickly make a worker’s skills rusty, out of date or obsolete. There is also the sneaking suspicion that women can be turned away at a job interview simply for the crime of being fertile and at the age when most women tend to have children. 

It seems that a reasonable way to overcome this discrimination is for the government to bring in legislation that makes fair parental leave pay a guarantee. If such legislation existed, then the men could take equal-length career breaks to look after their new-born children. What this would mean, effectively, is that hiring managers would no longer be able to discriminate based on gender or age alone. 

The benefits of truly equal shared parental leave pay

This is not just a moral campaign. The evidence points to there being economic benefits to implementing equal shared parental leave pay, too. Especially in increased employee satisfaction, and for employers as a result of lower turnover levels. 

For example, the company Airbus Commercial introduced a scheme that enabled its male colleagues to have up to 23 weeks’ enhanced pay, in a way that matched their full salary. It also made it easier to get employees back into the job role by reducing the initial number of hours in the working week, gradually increasing them back to full-time as they go. The results were considerable: with Airbus reporting that the numbers of men taking parental leave increased by 100%. And although the numbers were still relatively low, this is a pattern that will pay dividends if replicated across the business world. It will make it more normal and more typical for men to take an equal share of parental leave. And the more men who take it, the less of a stigma there will be.

This stigmatisation will be welcomed in all sectors, but perhaps most importantly the construction industry. As anyone familiar with the industry knows, it is in the midst of a recruitment crisis and has some of the most skewed gender differences of any working sector. By making it ‘socially acceptable’ for men to take some time off to look after their children, not only will they be able to involve themselves more, guilt-free, in the pleasures of raising children, they will also be helping to create a working culture that is fairer and with more equal working opportunities for new mothers. 

About the Author 

Eliza Serna-Cochrane is the HR administrator for Akramatic Engineering, a manufacturing and sheet metal work company based in Derbyshire. They have provided metal fabrications and components to virtually all UK industries, including the nuclear power, communication, and retail and lighting sectors.