Why the ‘motherhood penalty’ is just as important, and unjust, as the gender pay gap

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We’ve all heard about the gender pay gap, but Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, argues that we need to pay attention to another insidious inequality that penalises mothers and holds all of us back. 

If you are a feminist then I imagine there are certain feminist issues which trigger your well-managed rage mechanism, the gender pay gap being one. 

And I’m with you – it’s a topic that absolutely deserves our rage when women are still paid 84 pence for every £1 paid to men, and there’s a high likelihood that things have slipped further because of the pandemic. 

But I’m going to throw a bit of a spanner in the works because the term ‘the gender pay gap’ is somewhat misleading. Yes, there is a difference in pay between men and women, but it isn’t all about gender – because the pay gap between mothers and women without children is wider than the pay gap between men and women without children. This procreation pay gap is what sociologists refer to as ‘the motherhood penalty.’

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I am not saying that motherhood is a penalty. 

Sure, parenting can sometimes be a total pain in the arse, but choosing to be have kids isn’t (always) a punishment. It’s a wonderful, joyous, noisy thing and most of us wouldn’t have it any other way (if we could just have a few extra hours in bed). 

Motherhood isn’t the problem – the structures and systems in which women attempt to have children and a career are. You see, capitalism wasn’t set up to work for women, so when we do things that men don’t do, like grow a baby and push it out, we suddenly find that we are being dragged back to the kitchen sink, or we are repeatedly head butting a glass ceiling that has now transmuted into reinforced steel. 

Like Katie*, who contacted PregnantThenScrewed last week because she had been offered a job.  After a gruelling interview process, she was suddenly told the job didn’t exist anymore, after she informed them she was a single mother. 

To eliminate any potential confusion, giving birth does not make you any less competent at your job (I would argue it can make you better at your job, and research has shown that mothers are some of the most productive employees), plus most mothers either want to work or need to work to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. 

Mothers don’t want to be paid less than men or their childless counterparts, that’s not top of their wish list, yet research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old her hourly pay rate is, on average, 33% behind a man’s

Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About The Motherhood Penalt
Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About The Motherhood Penalty is out now

Men get pay rises and promotions when they have kids (the TUC estimates that a full time working dad is paid 21% more than childless men), women get pay cuts and demotions when they become a mother. Some would argue that this is because mothers tend to do less paid work than women without children, and that’s certainly true, but it doesn’t tell the full story. 

The TUC also calculated a 7% pay gap between mothers and non-mothers working full-time and with similar personal characteristics, such as education, region, occupation and social class. The only reason such a pay gap like this could exist is because of bias, and unfortunately study after study shows us that pregnant women and mothers are seen as less competent and less committed than other types of employees. 

Research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that a third of employers believe that pregnant women and mothers are generally less interested in career progression than their childless and male counterparts and 77% of working mums say they have experienced discrimination in the workplace.  

Tamara’s story

Tamara* told me how she had spent a decade thinking she was going mad. 

“Before children I could do no wrong at work, I was at least 15 years younger than everyone else at my level. Then I went on maternity leave and I was made redundant when I returned. In my next job I worked myself into a state of crippling illness trying to pretend I didn’t have a child. 

I damaged my mental health permanently by competing with men who all had a wife at home. And although I supposedly split the home-work with my husband, the split was never equal, and eventually I was made redundant again. It took me years to understand that it was structural inequalities that had caused this, not me.

It’s not that I wasn’t clever enough, or talented enough, or hard working enough, it’s because I was a mother. Meanwhile, my husband’s career skyrocketed.’’ 

In addition to the negative maternal bias that many employers hold, mothers also encounter a variety of structural challenges when trying to have children and a career, including extortionate childcare costs. The UK has the second most expensive childcare system in the world as a proportion of our income (The Slovak Republic is just marginally more expensive). This means that many mothers are grafting their backsides off just to pay someone else to look after their children; and that’s if you can get a childcare place – pre-pandemic provision is already very low and about a quarter of childcare places are expected to be lost within the next six months due to the government further reducing funding to this sector in December 2020.

This lack of investment in anything that involves caring is an extension of the fact that we just expect women to do it for free; alongside the cleaning and cooking. 

Data from the ONS shows that women do 60% more of the unpaid labour, and this was painfully apparent during the various lockdowns as mothers risked their career and their sanity to prop up society, ensuring the world kept spinning and society didn’t collapse into barbarian-like squalor. All of this work, the society saving stuff, isn’t paid, and it is totally undervalued. 

Most mothers work part-time so that they can cope with all of the other unpaid work they have to do. But part-time work is paid on average £5 less per hour than full time work and working part-time reduces your chance of being promoted by more than half. 

If you find yourself looking for work, the likelihood is you will end up in a job that is well below your pay and skill level as only 15% of jobs were advertised as flexible in 2019. It’s no wonder the average woman’s pension pot is £100k below that of a man’s.

What needs to change ?

All of this is fixable if the government make it a priority. 

Proper investment in our childcare system would make it affordable and good-quality, and would ensure childcare workers are paid a decent wage for the work they do. Ring fenced properly paid paternity leave would mean that dads take more time out in those early days to do the caring – we know that 85% of dads want to spend more time with their kids but our shared parental leave system isn’t worth the paper it is written on. 

Longer paternity leave decreases the gendered gap in unpaid labour and means mothers earn more over their lifetime; and finally our government could implement legislation that reduces the number of hours we all work so that doing the paid and unpaid labour is feasible. 

In the UK, we work the longest hours in Europe which negatively affects our mental health, and our productivity while forcing those with caring responsibilities onto the career reserve bench. 

But, unless you’re Boris Johnson, then these changes will likely feel completely out of your control. But, there are things we can all do to affect change within your own environment: 

1. Get to know your MP, drive them completely crackers with letters and tweets and attending constituency clinics and ask them what they are doing to make the above a reality. 

2. Address the balance of unpaid work in your house; go on strike if you have to. Down tools immediately, let the washing pile up and the children run feral. Your partner can make their own dinner, goddammit.

3. Read up. You could start with my book to understand exactly how gender blind policy making and deeply entrenched gender stereotypes are preventing many women from having children and a career, and then start talking about this issue with your friends and family – you will be surprised by the patriarchal narratives they regurgitate; this is your chance to change. 

*Names have been changed at the request of the women interviewed

Joeli Brearley is the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed and author of Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About The Motherhood Penalty And How To Fix It, published by Simon & Schuster and out now. 

Main image: Getty, book cover courtesy of Pregnant Then Screwed

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