What are the reasons behind the motherhood penalty?

As a mother, do you ever have a “sliding doors” moment and ask how might my life have been different? What if I had not chosen this path and done something different instead? What would I have earnt had I not had children?

One judge recently awarded £400,000 in a settlement to a wife within a divorce case who agreed to step back from her position in a law firm to enable her husband’s career to take precedence. As she viewed herself as the main parent, it was decided between them that she would take primary responsibility for the children.

In this case, the judge felt that the wife had stood ‘a very good chance’ of becoming partner at the firm had she not moved on and therefore the settlement represents a small compensation for the ‘relationship-generated disadvantage’ which resulted in the wife giving up her career. RC v JC, see Law Gazette article.

This article got us, here at Your Employee Wellbeing, thinking about what it is that makes mothers, most often feel they are the one to make the career sacrifices rather than fathers. A straw poll in the Your Employee Wellbeing offices saw a high proportion of hands raised when asked whether having a family had affected their careers and future prospects with some stating that at the point of becoming parents their careers were similarly or more successful than their partner. I know that in my case, I was on the partnership track when I became pregnant and once my baby was born, that all seemed to disappear. I became the main parent and made sure instead that Your Employee Wellbeing worked around my children, not the other way round.

So, what is it that drives a lot of women to be the ones to ‘give up’ or take a back seat to their partners’ careers?

Societal pressure

That old adage of ‘its always been that way’, or perhaps ‘a baby needs it’s mother’ are both true, but are they right?  

Probably not always. It’s true that it has been like this for many generations; most of our grandmothers would have stayed at home to look after the family and home and probably a high percentage of our mothers followed in their footsteps. This is demonstrated in the stats, in 1975 the percentage of women working whilst having dependent children was just 57%

A recent survey by the Economist found that the motherhood penalty was biggest for mothers whose own mother had stayed at home when they were children, as these were the most likely to follow their example and also stay at home. The same mothers who stayed at home looking after you, probably gave disapproving glances, raised their eyebrows and questioned the motivation for you going back to work rather than staying home with their grandchildren.

This is something which is changing fast. More mothers are working, in 2019 it was around 78%. There is much more acceptance or expectation of women to return to work. Plus the growth in women in further education, as well as the development in gender equality, means that the next generation themselves expect to have a career and a family as a team with their partner.


Becoming a mother (or indeed father) is a massive life-changing moment. You go from focusing your energy on your own life journey, to channelling all your thoughts on getting your little one set on their own life journey.

For some of us, this becomes so all-encompassing that the need to nurture, care and protect our little bundle of joy takes priority over our own progress or ambition. But once this initial nurturing and needy phase is over, it is often not easy and sometimes impossible to pick up where you left off in your career. You may have moved house, your skills may be out of date or flexible working is just not available to be able to manage both your family and career.

Returner programmes are helping change this. Driven mainly by women who have struggled to get back to work in a similar position as they left before children, the number of returner programmes in the UK appears to be booming. Large businesses are recognising the value in this community of highly skilled, experience and motivated (mainly) women and are proactively creating opportunities in their businesses for them to reignite their careers. Mainly seen the City and the legal professions, government funding is seeing it spread more widely across a vast range of jobs.

The role of men

Going back to societal pressures and ‘norms’ it is only recently that a father being primary carer, or even sharing the responsibility between parents has been considered an option for a family. Fathers have always been the main earner, rather than the homemaker.

The offer of extended shared parental leave could have levelled the playing field more than it has. But, only 2% of couples took shared parental leave in the 2018-19 financial year. Why is this?

 In some cases, men are not taking parental leave because it is not financially viable. If there is a big difference between salaries it seems to be a no-brainer that the father, as breadwinner for the family continues to work and the mother stays at home.

 It is also the opinion of many that looking after children is not the role of a father and can lead to embarrassment in the workplace or among peers. Anecdotally, many fathers are also shocked by many elements which contribute to looking after the kids. The general humdrum of keeping house, taxiing kids around and arguing with a toddler over an outfit can often seem to be tiring and mundane and less attractive than commuting into the office and having a day of stressful work! Many also fear the risk of discrimination. Having seen women suffering from workplace discrimination for so long, men don’t fancy taking a piece of that medicine.

 It is millennial fathers who are looking to turn this on its head though. Daddilife research in 2019 reported that 87% of fathers, aged 24-40 are involved in day-to-day parenting. As a result, 63% had requested a change in their working pattern. Maybe things are on the change?

Lack of support from employers for working parents

54,000 women who would like to return to work after maternity leave do not. (Equality and Human Rights Commission Report 2015) This costs businesses in recruitment, training and occasionally compensation. 

There are many piecemeal government-led initiatives which are designed to make life as a working parent easier and female focused recruitment a priority, but they can be difficult to understand and many are reliant on employers effectively communicating them to employees or parents working out if they are eligible and applying for schemes and initiatives themselves.

These include working tax credits, tax-free childcare, childcare vouchers, shared parental leave, gender pay gap reporting and the ability to request flexible working.

However, there is more individual businesses can be doing to help their employees. Proactively offering emotional support through wellbeing programmes and helping with the practical logistics of their live, for example finding childcare can go a long way. for further ideas please go to http://youremployeewellbeing.co.uk/services/.

Final thoughts…

The £400,000 awarded to the wife in this case was probably only a fraction of the income she would have earned if she had become a partner in a law firm. She made the decision to be the main parent, as many of us do but at what cost.

We are not suggesting working mothers keep a tally of their lost earnings and start invoicing their partners, but we do think there is a lot more that the world can be doing to support women who are mothers and wish to work, or more importantly support them to achieve their ambitions when they do return to work.

But bearing in mind you cannot put a £ next to the memories of your child’s first steps, first words, first day at school and a whole life of first, perhaps the salary sacrifice is worth it?

Your Employee Wellbeing is helping companies who are trying to improve work:life balance for all their employees.

Our working life solutions include services to help with the logistics of childcare and care for the elderly along with a programme of talks that deal with the emotional side of life as a working parent or carer.

www.youremployeewellbeing.co.uk  | 020 8979 6453  |  info@youremployeewellbeing.co.uk

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