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Tackling the motherhood penalty

31st Aug 2016
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August seems to have been the month for reports on discrimination against working mums.

Last week there was the Institute for Fiscal Studies report on the ‘motherhood penalty’, showing how the gender pay gap expands gradually from the point a woman has her first child, rising to an average of 33% after 12 years.

This week there was the report from the Women & Equalities Committee on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. In between have been various other reports on discrimination, flexible working and childcare costs.

There is clearly a big issue around women who take maternity leave or choose to work part time, but that's not where the discrimination stops.   

Another report earlier in the summer from Heejung Chung at the University of Kent showed that those who work flexibly work longer hours and that women who work flexibly are paid less than men who work flexibly even when they work full time. Why is this? The researcher said: “This may be because when flexibility is used for personal reasons, employers may not reward its use.

“Plus, employers tend to believe that women use flexibility mainly for family-friendly purposes, which results in women not being rewarded in the same way as men when using flexibility – regardless of the increase in their devotion to work they exhibit. So an increase in flexibility at work may lead to the enforcement of traditional gender roles and increase the gender gap.”

Flexible working and the pay gap

So is it flexible working or the assumptions made about why women work flexibly that is causing the pay gap and does it matter? And why are women prepared to accept lesser pay for working flexibly? Is it because they need flexible working to make the whole work life thing work in a way that men don’t because they are still less likely to be the main carers? 

I interviewed a part-time dad a while ago. He had gone part time for health reasons, rather than childcare ones. He worked three days a week, but had negotiated to get paid for four to take into account the fact that he checked emails etc on his other two days. I have never heard of a woman negotiating a similar deal. They are much more likely to say they are paid to work three days and end up basically working five.

Could part of the problem for women’s lack of confidence to negotiate better terms be linked to the original concept of flexible working as some sort of favour or benefit for employees who started families – a favour for which women, on the whole, were so grateful that they were prepared to accept lesser pay or overwork to compensate for homeworking privileges? 

Employers tend to believe that women use flexibility mainly for family-friendly purposes

In recent years this concept of flexible working as a favour has changed as the right to request flexible working has been extended to all employees. Flexible working tends to be viewed now as a win-win for both employers and employees and as a more modern 21st century way of working.

Indeed, what seems to have happened over the last few years is that the pendulum has swung on flexible working. Initially it was seen as an employee benefit, with all the resentment this brought from colleagues not eligible to ask for it, the sidelining of those doing it and the negative connotations of lack of commitment and so forth.

Now it is something employers must grasp in order to cope with the demands of a globalised economy powered by ever-changing technology. This has led to it being exploited by some employers who expect employees to be on call all the time and to be able to change shifts, adapt work patterns and so forth with little warning and in the absence of flexible childcare.

Best practice

When flexible working works best is when there is a balance between what employers and employees get from it, where employees who request it take into consideration the impact on employers, where employers take into account the impact of changes to working patterns on employees and so forth. That is why there is a need for a greater emphasis on and sharing of good practice.

That includes ensuring that flexible working is not a dead end career-wise and that it is implemented fairly with men being encouraged to work flexibly and women being paid the same for equal work, no matter when or where that work is done.

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