A study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that 77% of working mothers surveyed had potentially discriminatory or negative experiences. For many, the statutory protections designed to help mothers are not effective in re-balancing the disadvantages faced. With most mothers being of working age, we explore what employers can do to tackle these issues in order to retain mothers in the workplace.

Key takeaways

Working mothers bring diverse thoughts and ideas to the workplace. Much has also moved on in recent years. Most women expect to return to the workplace and want to pursue their careers. But still some barriers remain, and for many the statutory protections designed to help mothers do not fully mitigate all of the challenges they face. To ensure that the workplace is accessible and a place where mothers can thrive, and to retain key talent, employers are increasingly recognising the importance of revisiting and addressing the impact of any barriers that apply to their business.

Why it matters: the business case

It goes without saying, that as women make up 51% of the population, they are a significant pool of talent. Research has clearly shown that employers with better female representation at executive and board level typically outperform their peers. Despite this, many organisations still struggle to build a diverse pipeline. As many women may be approaching the prime of their career when they have children, they are a key group for employers to tap into as they build a diverse talent pipeline.

What are the barriers?

The most obvious barrier is that despite societal changes, women are still more likely to be the primary caregiver, and more likely to have time out of paid work. Research suggests that by the time their first child is 20, on average women have been in paid work for four years less than men. Mothers are also found to be 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend an additional three hours or more per day on housework and childcare. They therefore have less time than fathers and co-workers without children to spend on work and on curating their career path.

The cost of childcare is another barrier and can drive women to leave the workplace or to substantially reduce their working hours. In addition, some negative societal assumptions about women's commitment, drive and flexibility impede their progression in the workplace.

As a result of a combination of these factors, research has 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.

COVID-19 has also had a further negative impact on working mothers and often disproportionately so compared with men. A survey by McKinsey found that during the pandemic mothers were more likely than fathers to be struggling with their mental health and that remote-working mothers had lower levels of well-being than remote-working fathers. The survey also revealed that due to COVID-19, roughly 33% of mothers have considered downshifting roles or leaving their careers.

Are statutory benefits and rights effective?

Working mothers benefit from a number of key statutory rights from the time they become pregnant and while they have dependent children. In the UK these include up to 52 weeks' maternity leave, the potential for shared parental leave, the right to return to the same job or in limited circumstances, a suitable alternative role with no less favourable terms and conditions, and some priority for alternative employment in a redundancy situation.

Women also have protection against dismissal, detriment or discrimination because of pregnancy, childbirth or taking maternity leave and all employees with at least 26 weeks' continuous employment can also make a request for flexible working for any reason (e.g., for childcare). Although in principle a request can only be refused for one of eight reasons stated in the legislation, there may also be scope to claim indirect sex discrimination in some circumstances.

Despite this, a Trade Union Congress and Mother Pukka study on flexible work revealed that almost 50% of the mothers surveyed had their request rejected or only partly accepted. In addition, 86% of the women who were working flexibly said they faced discrimination and disadvantage at work due to the fact that they worked flexibly. There were further findings that many women were worried about asking for flexible working or thought there was no point in asking for it, as their request would be turned down.

Although more and more fathers do play a very active role in childcare, they do not appear to suffer the same penalty as women. When shared parental leave was introduced, it was hailed as method of "levelling" maternity leave between parents, but in fact take up by fathers has been low. Only around 2% of those eligible took shared parental leave in 2019, and this declined further during the pandemic. This may in part reflect the complexity of the shared parental leave system and financial concerns, given that there is no obligation on employers to enhance pay beyond the statutory shared parental leave pay.

In July 2018 the Government launched a consultation on shared parental leave, but in the absence of any concrete proposals, some employers have now chosen to offer more generous shared parental leave and pay, recognising the importance of this issue and that if more men take leave, this will ultimately benefit women. In Sweden, which is often heralded as a success story in terms of parental equality, couples are entitled to a total of 480 days, 390 of which are paid at 80% of salary. Each individual has 90 days to "use or lose" and the remaining 300 days can be shared. As a result it has become much more common for fathers to take longer periods of leave.

Time for change

A number of proposals for change in the UK have been pending for some time:

  • Day 1 right to request flexible working - this would remove the 26 weeks' service threshold required for employees to request flexible working arrangements and could open up the right to request flexible working to an additional 2.2 million employees. The government backed a private members' bill by a Labour MP at its second reading in the House of Commons in October 2022. This bill would not remove the 26 weeks' service threshold, but would require employers to consult with employees before rejecting their flexible working request, allow an employee to make two statutory requests in a year, and make some changes to the procedure to be followed when making requests.
  • Unpaid carers leave - In September 2021, the UK government confirmed it would introduce a new statutory right of up to one week of unpaid carer's leave. On the same day as the flexible working bill above, it supported a private members' bill sponsored by a Liberal Democrat MP at its second reading The bill is before the House of Lords but if passed in its current form, would give all employees a right to take up to one week's unpaid leave over a year in half-day or day increments.
  • Extending redundancy protection - currently, where a redundancy situation arises during an employee's maternity leave, she has a right to be offered a suitable alternative vacancy (where one is available) in preference to other colleagues during a protected period, which extends to the end of her maternity leave. The Government has confirmed it supports a proposal to extend the protected period for six months following a return from maternity leave. A private members' bill by a Labour MP to extend these protections was supported by the government in October 2022 and has now had its first reading in the House of Lords.
  • Neonatal care leave - following a consultation in 2019, the UK government promised that additional paid leave would be available for employees who are responsible for children needing neonatal care. The UK government has supported another private members' bill, this one by a Scottish National Party MP, which has now reached the House of Lords.

Outside of the UK, a UNICEF report in 2019 found that Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia and Portugal offered the best family-friendly policies. Estonia offers 85 weeks' leave on full pay.

Top Tips

The so-called motherhood penalty is not easy to solve, but employers wanting to make further progress could consider the following:

  • Reviewing policies on maternity, parental and family leave, including pay, and promoting the take up of shared parental leave by fathers, to reduce the stigma.
  • Developing policy on managing absence for maternity, parental and family leave and giving guidance to managers to ensure that discussions take place before an employee goes on leave to make plans for their return and how and to what extent they want to keep in touch during leave.
  • Promoting inclusive flexible work arrangements and advertising the success, in order to help normalise atypical working patterns.
  • Maternity coaching and support (including mentoring circles) for women preparing for and returning from maternity leave, with sponsorship arrangements in place for those in the promotion pipeline. Support could also be offered to parents including fathers returning from parental leave.
  • Formulating an approach to deal with those who have had time out due to maternity, parental or family leave to ensure that promotions are not delayed, and making changes to promotion processes to accommodate those taking leave.
  • Offering emergency childcare resource schemes for when childcare arrangements break down.
  • Using diversity data collected as a matter of course to review all decisions such as performance evaluation ratings, pay rises and bonuses through a "diversity lens" to identify risk of bias.
  • Collaborating with third-party organisations to actively recruit returning professionals who have been out of the workforce for an extended period of time and provide tailored support to highlight and address any potential barriers that may arise during their careers, to ensure retention.
  • Partnering with recruitment agencies, for example, Reignite Academy, that focus on the recruitment of female lawyers who have opted to take a career break and who provide coaching and support when transitioning into new roles.
  • Considering the potential for bias in work allocation and opportunities.
  • Using internal and external communications to highlight success stories, good examples of agile working and return to work.
  • Including this topic and examples of best practice in leadership training.
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