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The "motherhood penalty": legislative developments and how to support mothers in the workplace

Posted on 14 July 2023

The "motherhood penalty" is the concept that mothers encounter disadvantages in the workplace, including in relation to pay, perceived competence and career progression. Some studies have shown that motherhood has become a significant driver of the gender pay gap.

Campaign groups argue that reform of statutory leave and pay entitlements for parents, coupled with reform of the childcare sector, has the potential to radically improve labour market participation by mothers, help close the gender pay gap and disrupt gendered stereotypes about who performs childcare.

In this article we explore the reasons for the motherhood penalty in the UK, highlight legislative reforms and consider how employers can better support mothers in the workplace.

What is driving the motherhood penalty? 

Some of the headline factors driving the motherhood penalty include:

Low statutory maternity pay

Rankings prepared by Boundless reveal that the UK has one of the lowest maternity pay offerings in Europe. Bulgaria, which boasts Europe's best package, allows new mothers to take a minimum of 58.6 weeks off at 90% of their full salary, while Norway pays mothers 80-100% of their full salary for at least 49 weeks.

Although the Government recently increased the flat rate for statutory maternity and other family pay by 10% to £172.48 per week for 2023/2024, many say that this increase is not enough given high inflation and the rising cost of living.

Low uptake of shared parental leave

Eight years after the UK Government introduced shared parental leave (SPL) as a policy to encourage moving beyond gendered caregiving roles, SPL take-up remains low. Many campaigners argue that SPL should be replaced with a "use it or lose it" period of paid leave for both mothers and partners, to encourage more equal parenting from birth. It is notable that in countries that offer more non-transferable leave for the partner (such as Sweden and Iceland), partner uptake is much higher (up to 90%).

High childcare costs

According to a recent PwC report, average nursery costs per week rose by more than a fifth between 2015 and 2022, while average weekly earnings rose by 14%. In addition, net childcare costs represented almost a third of the income of a family on the average UK wage, compared to as little as 1% in Germany. For many women, high childcare costs mean the most financially viable option is to leave the workforce to provide childcare themselves.

What legislative initiatives is the UK Government taking to address the motherhood penalty?

Over the last several months the Government has pursued a package of family friendly legislative reforms:

  • Childcare costs: In March 2023, the Government announced that the existing 30 hours of free childcare available to working parents in England will be extended to cover all children from nine months' old to school age, starting in September 2025. It is estimated that the move could allow around 60,000 more parents of young children to enter employment.
  • Enhanced redundancy protection: Currently parents on maternity, adoption and shared parental leave have a "super priority" right to be offered suitable alternative employment in a redundancy scenario. The Government's intention is to use the new Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act, which recently received Royal Assent, to extend redundancy protection so that it will apply from when an employee tells an employer they are pregnant and will last until 18 months after birth. The Government intends to lay down secondary legislation to implement this in due course.
  • Neonatal care leave and pay: Parents of babies who require specialist neonatal care will be entitled to up to 12 weeks of paid leave under the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act, which again recently received Royal Assent. These new entitlements are expected to come into force in April 2025.
  • Flexible working: In December 2022, the Government took steps to implement its proposals to reform the right to request flexible working. The Government said that it will introduce legislative changes to allow UK workers to request flexible working from the first day of their employment (rather than after 26 weeks). It is also backing the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Bill which will make other changes to the flexible working regime, such as allowing employees to make two, rather than just one, flexible working request in a 12 month period, and requiring the employer to consult with the employee if it is considering rejecting their flexible working request.

While these new legislative measures are welcome news, it can be argued that bolder reforms are still needed if the UK is to become a gender-equal society and achieve a more even distribution of unpaid household and care work.

What can employers do to support those with parenting responsibilities?

Some of the initiatives employers may wish to consider to help address the motherhood penalty and more generally support those with parenting responsibilities, include:

  • If they have not already done so, consider offering enhancements over and above the statutory entitlement to maternity leave/pay and to other types of family leave/pay;
  • Ensure that family friendly policies such as maternity, adoption and shared parental leave are signposted and made clear to employees;
  • Consider offering flexible and bespoke benefits to help parents adapt to their new lives, for example childcare vouchers, cleaning services and parental coaching; and
  • Support and encourage employees returning from family leave. This could include additional training to cover recent developments they have missed while absent, IT refreshers, regular check-ins, and providing parent networks and a buddy system so that employees with parenting responsibilities can support each other and create a community within the workplace.

If you would like more information on supporting mothers and other staff with parenting responsibilities in your business, please get in touch with your usual Mishcon contact or with a member of the Employment team.

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