Tackling the motherhood penalty will unlock women’s skills and talents in Britain’s post-Brexit future


Working Families is pleased to support #FaceHerFuture – it’s vital that, post-Brexit, there is no weakening of women’s rights or of the continued progress towards equality for women.

Working Families provides a free legal advice service for working parents and carers, the majority of our callers being women. Much of the advice we give them is based on EU provisions for employment protection and equality in the workplace which have been translated into UK law, or have led to improvements and extensions of UK law.

Maintaining and strengthening these rights is vital in order for the UK to emerge post-Brexit with more employers operating in a stronger, family-friendly UK economy. We’d suggest (and have suggested) to the Prime Minister that she not introduce a cap on compensation for unfair dismissal in discrimination cases, but instead commit to the abolition of upfront fees for employment tribunals. This would send a clear signal that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is not a green light for rogue employers to begin to discriminate against their employees on the grounds of sex.

Going further, the new government has the opportunity to show itself as progressive and ambitious, committed to fighting the burning injustice of gender inequality, as Theresa May pledged to do on the steps of Downing Street in July. This means getting serious about tackling the motherhood penalty, highlighted recently by findings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies which show how pronounced the gender pay gap becomes after women have had children; 12 years after her first child is born, a woman can expect to be paid 33 per cent less than men.

As the report highlights, a key reason for this is the fact that more women than men work part-time or flexibly, because they are disproportionately responsible for unpaid caring and need to combine their responsibilities at work and home. All too often this means limiting, low-paid part-time work. Creative thinking about job design is needed to create a truly flexible job market in the UK. As well as reporting on pay, we’d like to see employers reporting on the steps they have taken to embed flexible working in their organisations, including whether or not they have taken a ‘flexible by default’ approach to recruitment.

We have been working in partnership with the Scottish Government to deliver the Family Friendly Working Scotland programme, a major plank of which is engaging employers. I have followed with interest the development of the Scottish Business Pledge and have been pleased to support the element within it which asks businesses to develop family-friendly workplaces as a way to boost competitiveness and performance. A Westminster government favouring a voluntary approach to engendering best practice amongst businesses might take a similar approach, helping businesses strengthen their commitment to agility, and paying economic dividends post-Brexit.

But as long as women continue to shoulder the majority of responsibility for childcare and other forms of unpaid caring, the motherhood penalty will remain. Shared parental leave introduced by the coalition government was welcome, but Theresa May’s government could go further towards making time off for fathers a realistic option for all parents, and embedding shared care from the beginning. Working Families is calling for three months non-transferrable paid leave for fathers and second parents, as recommended by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in March. These kinds of game-changing policies would get to the root of the motherhood penalty and unlock the talent of women for the benefit of employers and the economy in post-Brexit Britain.

Working Families is the UK’s leading work-life balance charity. October 3-7 is National Work Life Week – find more information here.

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Sarah Jackson
Sarah is the Chief Executive of Working Families and has been campaigning for work-life balance and culture change since 1994. In 2007 she was awarded an OBE in recognition of her services to Quality of Life issues. She is also a member of the Policy Advisory Board of the Social Market Foundation and a Fellow of the RSA.