It’s not me, it’s you: ending the motherhood penalty 

Post author image. Charlotte Woodworth
For Mother’s Day, Business in the Community’s Gender Director Charlotte Woodworth discusses how employers need to create a working world where mothers, and others who care, can flourish.
Charlotte Woodworth smiling

Earlier this month, Business in the Community launched Who Cares?, a campaign calling on employers to transform the way we think about combining paid work and caring responsibilities. The initiative was sparked by the knowledge that the challenge of reconciling care, looking after children and others who need support, while also doing paid work is one of the key drivers of the gender pay gap, and this has intensified during the pandemic.

We kicked off with a large-scale survey of attitudes and experiences around combining paid work and care, asking nearly 6k people across the UK about their views. The results were startling, painting a picture of mainstream working culture and practices that don’t meet the needs or aspirations of many in the modern workforce.

It’s not about overcoming my caring ‘burden’, it’s about upgrading and modernising working practices and cultures so I can flourish, and employers can benefit from all that I and my fellow carers of all genders, backgrounds and walks of life have to offer.

But this Mother’s Day, I wanted to focus on one angle in particular, how we talk about this challenge. Several weeks of discussing the research findings with businesses, politicians, media, and campaigners has been an eye-opening experience, some have called the research a ‘lightbulb moment’, some have said it’s a ‘call to arms.’ There’s welcome talk about flexibility, carer’s leave and support for new parents. However, in the follow-up discussion, there is a particular way of describing or understanding this challenge that always lands badly with me. Well-meaning, well-intentioned people talk about how ‘caring responsibilities should not be such a barrier’ and often there are reflections about how we should ‘help and support’ carers. To my mind, this framing is missing the point.

I’m a mother, my son is four years old, and I’m seven months pregnant with my second as I write this. I’m pretty ambitious, and when I think about where my working life might go, my son is not a barrier.

He and his Go Jetters habit are not what might block or prevent my career from going where it could. He isn’t a burden or a hurdle, the responsibility for looking after him is not a ‘block on my career.’

Rather, it’s employers with old school, antiquated and frankly out of touch ideas about where, when and how work is done that could skew my path. It is organisations clinging to rigid working hours, fixed ideas about locations, and leaders who might think I’m less committed or less able than I was five years ago. These are what I might fall foul of. In my particular situation, it’s also organisations that might deny my male partner equitable access to take on caring responsibilities that could get in my way, meaning that while my domestic set-up is such that there are two adults equally keen and desirous of taking care of our children, the chances are that both of us will, in the next decade or so, work for employers who implicitly, or explicitly, see it as primarily my job to care, not his.

In the UK, the last 50 years have seen a sea change in the proportion of mothers engaged in formal paid work. In 1972 around one in two mothers of dependent children were also drawing down some kind of paycheque; by 2015 this had become more than two thirds (72%).1 Our research with Ipsos found that at any one time nearly half the UK workforce, of all genders, are combining their ‘day jobs’ with responsibilities for kids or others with support needs.

But the working world has not kept pace with this change. This Mother’s Day falls more than two years into a pandemic that has challenged and upturned so much in the way of age-old customs, but more change is needed. One thing I, and the millions of others like me who are combing earning a living with looking after loved ones, would like to see is a shift in how we think about combining paid work and care. It’s not about overcoming my caring ‘burden’, it’s about upgrading and modernising working practices and cultures so I can flourish, and employers can benefit from all that I and my fellow carers of all genders, backgrounds and walks of life have to offer.

TRANSFORM HOW YOUR ORGANISATION COMBINES WORK WITH CARING RESPONSIBILITIES

References

  1. The rise has been particularly large among lone mothers and mothers of pre-school and primary-school-age children. Overall, the proportion of couples with children where only one adult works has almost halved (down from 47% in 1975 to 27% in 2015) and the proportion where both work has increased from 49% to 68%. (Source: https://ifs.org.uk/publications/12951).