Two years ago, the UK Government began to work on a number of studies examining the progression of women in the workplace. One of these studies, titledEmployment Pathways and Occupational Change After Childbirth, took a close look at women’s careers in the years before and after having a child. WhenProfessor Susan Harkness, Dr Magda Borkowska and Dr Alina Pelikh started their research into pay penalties and career progression, they wanted to find out how often women are pushed into ‘downgrading’ their careers after childbirth; moving to part-time work, lower-status jobs, or opting out of employment entirely.
What did they find out?
The researchers learned that when it comes to the stay-at-home conversation, new mothers were much more likely to relinquish full-time employment to allow more time for child care compared to new fathers. The statistics make it very clear: only 27.8% of women were in full-time work three years after childbirth, in comparison to 90% of men. Does the stark difference in these statistics highlight a need for fathers to be offered access to more flexible work opportunities? Could employers be doing more to ensure mothers have access to full-time roles which can be balanced with parental care responsibilities?
Why is this happening?
To find answers, we only have to look at what happens to women who don’t choose to stay at home after having children. Firstly, there’s a high risk of occupational downgrading to overcome. Any break in employment – even a short one – can result in new mothers taking a lower-responsibility job, and those who chose to leave work entirely in order to create space for child care are three times more likely to take a lower-paid role than those who don’t take a break.
Even in cases where mothers find a job at the same level as the one they left, their chances of receiving a promotion take a hit. Occupational change is a gradual procedure, but the process moves even more slowly for those who have given birth.
One year after having a child, 13% of new fathers had been promoted, compared to 6% of new mothers. After three years, 21% of dads were advancing professionally, compared to 13% of mums. Two years after that, 26% of fathers were still climbing the occupational ladder – but mothers remained stuck at 13%.
So, taking a new job after childbirth comes at a cost. What about mothers who return to the job they held before having a child? It’s true that this comes with a lower risk of occupational downgrading, but staying with the same employer after having a child can often result in being paralysed in the same role for years – for women, but not for men.
As a result of this frustrating arrested development, mothers are pushed into looking for opportunities to progress with other companies. Without family-friendly policies (complemented by effective career development support), organisations will continue to see talented female employees seeking greener grass elsewhere.
Parents are often forced into gendered labour patterns in the years following childbirth, as a result of employment and earning patterns diverging in favour of men. Women are far more likely to work part-time or leave employment completely after having children, with men becoming the sole earner in many cases.
The study places the fault with employers, who have a responsibility to help their employees consider the options for sharing care, and to ensure equal opportunities for male and female staff alike. It can be as simple as getting men and women in one room, to share personal experiences and have an open discussion without getting too prescriptive.
We need easy-to-understand policies designed to address the imbalance, discussed with expectant parents as early as possible. The solution starts with a conversation. Read the full study here.