Women ‘less likely to progress at work’ than male counterparts following childbirth.

Gender gap in parenthood.

Women and men experience a ‘large divergence’ in their career paths in the years following childbirth, according to a study following more than 3,500 new parents. Only 27.8 per cent of women are in full-time work or self-employed three years after childbirth, compared to 90 per cent of new fathers.

Findings from researchers at the Universities of Bristol and Essex, based on data from Understanding Society – a longitudinal household panel study – 26 per cent of men have been promoted or moved to a better job in the five years following childbirth, while just 13 per cent of women have experienced this shift. The findings suggest women still suffer economically and often become ‘stuck’ at work as a result of taking on childcare responsibilities, while there’s no impact on fathers.

The data for the study was gathered from 2,281 new mothers over three years and 1,199 new mothers over five years after giving birth, between 2009/10 and 2016/17. Of these, 43 per cent were first-time mothers.

Analysis, captured in a report for the Government Equalities Office, reveals mothers increasingly withdraw from full-time employment over time and the more children a woman has, the lower the likelihood she will work full-time.

Other key findings include:

  • Fewer than one-in-five of all new mothers, and 29 per cent of first-time mothers, return to full-time work in the first three years after maternity leave. This falls to 15 per cent after five years.
  • 17 per cent of women leave employment completely in the five years following childbirth, compared to four per cent of men.
  • A women’s likelihood of returning to work in the years after birth is independent of the number of children she has; what matters to her likelihood of working is her employment status the before her child is born.
  • In the year before birth, the man was the main earner in 54 per cent of couples. This increases to 69 per cent three years after birth.
  • For couples where the woman was the main breadwinner prior to birth (12 per cent), just 46 per cent remained the main earner three years later.
  • Mothers who leave employment completely are three times more likely to return to a lower-paid or lower-responsibility role than those who do not take a break.
  • For new mothers – but not fathers – staying with the same employer is associated with a lower risk of downward occupational mobility but also with lower chances of progression.

The study also found that prior employment status was is a key predictor of returning to work, particularly full-time, which suggests that policy should focus on getting young women into work before childbirth if they are to achieve economic equality in later life. Of those working full-time prior to childbirth, 44 per cent returned and remained in full-time work three years after having a baby but this falls to 31 per cent after five years.

Professor Susan Harkness, from the School of Policy Studies at the University of Bristol, led the research and said: “The results of our study highlight how gendered employment patterns are following childbirth, with men typically remaining in full-time work and women leaving full-time work.

“This loss in work experience, and in particular full-time work experience, is an important part of the explanation for the gender pay gap and suggests women still suffer economically as a result of taking on childcare responsibilities.

“Worryingly, it appears that women who return to employment typically see their chance of moving up the occupational ladder decrease,” she added. “Women who return to the same employer risk becoming stuck in their job roles with limited career progression.”

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