The ‘Mums’ penalty’ in the workplace and why we’re all paying the cost

On International Women’s Day, we are pleased to publish a guest post by Lucy O’Connor, International Development Undergraduate Student, University of Reading


Mothers are hit the hardest when we are talking about the gender pay gap that still exists within the UK workplace today. The gender wage gap in the UK is admittedly the lowest it’s ever been, with women receiving ‘only’ 18% less per hour than men. However, mothers are still the group suffering the biggest pay difference- the gap widens consistently for 12 years after the first child is born, by which time women receive 33% less pay per hour. Andrew Chamberlain, an economist, says “British working mothers are significantly worse off than those without family responsibilities, and this pressure will not help the UK address its workplace diversity issues”. 

Before women decide to start a family, the employment rates of men and women are almost identical, allowing an equal representation in the workplace which provides the same advancement opportunities. However, this then changes as soon as a child is brought into the picture. Between the year before and the year after birth, women’s employment rates drop by 33%, whilst this barely changes for men. This discriminatory pattern of exclusion has major impacts on the economy and society , as  women will either become unemployed or be pushed in lower paid, less skilled work, with only room for men at the top.

The inequality suffered by most mothers in the UK not only affects their livelihoods and wellbeing and that of their families’, but also that of the country as a whole. Women make up 47% of the British workforce,  and are hence vital in the productivity and overall success of our economy and society. Unleashing women’s full workplace potential  could be worth an estimated £170 billion, enabling the economy to grow by 10%. If the current situation continues, it would take the UK  41 years to close its gap.  This shows that we all benefit from abolishing the gender wage gap and discrimination in the workplace. As explained by the A Fair Deal for Women, “not only does it make moral sense, it also makes good financial and economic sense too”.


So, why do mothers take the brunt of the gender wage gap?

According to traditional gendered stereotypes, mothers are expected to be the parent who should predominantly stay at home to provide childcare for babies and young children, leading to high levels of part-time employment. This means mothers lose out on full-time salaries  promotion opportunities may be delayed, as their skills and potential as part-time workers are not as recognised. This means they accumulate ‘less labour market experience’ and are regarded as less efficient than someone having gained skills on full-time basis. This stereotype of women is an outdated and frankly redundant ideology that needs changing.

While the wage gap for women in the UK with no children is slightly more than 7%, for those with at least one child it leaps to 21% – an alarming and pressing issue affecting how children are brought up within the UK. A mother, Kate from Oxford, has felt the full impacts of ‘the motherhood pay penalty’. She explains, I decided to return to my job on an 80% contract, to manage childcare. Since my return, I’ve had almost all of my responsibilities and projects stripped […] I’m now set to perform badly in this year’s review which will affect my bonus and pay rise next year”.

Pigeon-holing women into unsuitable and limiting roles due to the ‘hassle’ of companies having to provide flexible working arrangements to enable mothers to meet childcare responsibilities, is just another form of gender discrimination and one which will actually hamper most workplaces’ economic progress.


So, what can be done to stop the ‘Mums’ penalty’ and prevent further gender discrimination in the workplace?

Recent legislative and policy changes are making it harder for employers to ignore the motherhood penalty and gender pay gap. In 2017, 8,000 employers with more than 250 staff will have to reveal their gender pay and bonus gap. Although this will shed some light on the apparent gender discrimination within workplaces, it is unlikely to bring an end to unequal opportunities for mothers. The government also provides 30 hours of free childcare for working families with 3 and 4 year olds. Now, whilst this is excellent progress, it’s simply not enough for mothers with children of all ages.

One of the major hurdles in getting women back to full-time work is expensive childcare, with an average part time nursery place now costing up to £6,000 a year. Wouldn’t it just be better to subsidise childcare from infancy right up to adolescence? State childcare should start as soon as paid parental leave is over. A free part-time nursery place should be available from when a child reaches nine months, with extra hours on top of that capped at £1 an hour. The Women’s Equality Party sums it up well, “Of course, lots of mothers and fathers want to spend time at home with their young families. But at least 600,000 stay-at-home parents would prefer to work if they could afford to do so”.


Licia Ronzulli breastfeeding in the EU Parliament, September 2010 (Source)


A more controversial solution is to allow babies into the office. When Licia Ronzulli, Italian politician took her six-week-old baby to the European Parliament in September 2010, the pictures caused a media stir. She said her decision to bring baby Vittoria in to vote was not a political gesture but a maternal one because she was breastfeeding. Through providing clear rules and a formal structure, this can be a viable option for the modern day workplace.

Enforcing paternity leave in the UK is arguably the best way to equalise the importance of childcare and career progression for both genders. In the UK currently, a man can only take 2 weeks paternity leave, which is paid at the statutory level of just £139.58 a weekWhile Shared Parental Leave is an important step in the right direction, it is still a long way off an equal system of parental leave shared between the parents.  There are many more solutions to this problem, such as flexible working to enable  parents to work from home or increasing the wages  of low paid work, which is often feminised. Giving all women an adequate pay rise so that they are paid the same as men with equivalent skills and experience, it will not only see the end of the gender pay gap, it would increase the diversity of the workforce in the UK, allowing the economy to grow exponentially. But most importantly, it will be a major step forward in promoting gender equality both in the workplace and within families.


 For more information:


This blogpost was written as part of the second year undergraduate module, Culture, Identity & Place, taught by Ruth Evans and Sally Lloyd-Evans, Department of Geography & Environmental Science. The views expressed in this blogpost are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the University of Reading’s position.

Contact: Dr. Ruth Evans, Athena SWAN Leadership Group, SAGES Email:; Twitter: @DrRuth_Evans


The blog is evolving

Last week Hilary and I travelled to Sheffield to collect SAGES Silver Athena SWAN award.  Thank you and congratulations to everyone who worked so hard to make this possible!



With our Athena SWAN awards – Louise Jones, Hilary Geoghegan (SAGES) and Joanne Elliott (Chemistry)

This is, however, only one stage in the Athena SWAN ‘journey.’  This blog was established as part of the SAGES 2014-2015 Gender and Fieldwork Project, exploring Fieldwork, Gender and Careers.  Later Wellbeing was also added as a really important topic to explore further.  It is now time for the blog to evolve and be part of a new project.  This is therefore my last blog post, as the blog will now become part of a SAGES Disability and Inclusion Project led by Dr Ruth Evans:

The SAGES Disability and Inclusion project aims to raise awareness about disability and foster inclusive learning and working environments in SAGES. Ruth Evans, School Diversity and Inclusion representative, is currently consulting with key University staff and students about the focus of the project, including reviewing current support and facilities for students and exploring how to raise awareness of disability and mental health among staff. We have a particular focus on  ensuring that fieldwork is inclusive and are exploring staff training and capacity building and peer mentoring of students. We welcome any ideas or suggestions or examples of good practice as the project develops. Contact:

I would therefore like to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone who has supported this blog from the start, everyone who read the posts, has suggested ideas and forwarded comments, and on a personal level everyone who has encouraged me to start and then continue blogging.  Thank you!!!

Good luck to everyone with your research/studies/work/finding that work life balance, and look out for upcoming posts from the Diversity and Inclusion team……..


Improve gender balance in Irish HE or face fines, says review

Published yesterday (28th June) in the Times Higher, Jack Grove discusses proposed new reforms designed to improve gender equality at Irish Universities.

‘As part of plans put forward by an expert group commissioned by the Republic of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, all higher education institutions would face financial penalties if they did not meet targets on gender equality agreed with the funding body. Institutions would also be unable to apply for research funding if they failed to achieve at least a Silver Athena SWAN award within seven years, the group has recommended. Other recommendations from the long-awaited national review of gender equality in Irish higher education, which was published on 27 June, include having mandatory quotas for academic promotion and asking university presidential candidates to demonstrate their experience in advancing gender equality.’

What do you think?  Are reforms needed to speed up the move towards greater gender equality?


Health and Wellbeing blog

I have highlighted the Health and Wellbeing blog created by the University of Reading’s Counselling Service before, and it is worth doing so again!  Although tagged as a ‘student wellbeing blog’ the advice and links are arguably useful to everyone.  Just a few of the recent blog posts:

Growing up in two different cultures

What is your Ikigali (Japanese meaning a reason to get up in the morning)

Giving Presentations

Keeping Active to Tackle Exam Stress

Positive Self-Talk

Eat Well to Boost your Brainpower

Keep a look out for more blog posts in the future…….


Is tech addiction making us far more stressed at work?

‘The Quality of Working Life 2016 report from the Chartered Management Institute earlier this year found that this obsession with checking emails outside of work hours is making it difficult for many of us to switch off.’

Could now be the time to try and find that balance?



What can a tea bag tell you about soil?

Once again we are returning to the Soapbox Science blog, and this time it is to highlight a post published on 18th June by Sarah Duddigan (a PhD student in the Environmental Science Department here at Reading).

‘Growing up there were two things I got real enjoyment from at school, one was science lessons, and the other was playing outside and getting muddy. Never did I think that would be able to pursue a career that involves both!’  See the full blog to read more…….

Soapbox Science is a novel public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. Keep a look out for events organised throughout the year.



Gender pay gap: keep the ‘pity payments’

Joanna Williams has written a really interesting article published in the Times Higher yesterday (16th June), exploring the gender pay gap, and arguing that one-off sums ‘reward biology rather than merit.’

”The current discourse promotes a false perception that women are disadvantaged in academia and need special treatment to achieve equal status with their male colleagues. One-off payments to “compensate” for the average gender pay gap, such as the one made at Essex, reward biology rather than merit. They suggest that women should be paid more just for being female, rather than for publishing papers or generating funding. Female academics have no need for such pity-payments. Finally, the gender obsession detracts from other, far greater, pay inequalities. Many women employed by universities work in catering or housekeeping. They clean the offices and make the coffee for academics. I suspect that they may well be envious of the additional £4,000 female professors at Essex are about to receive.”

These is currently considerable debate surrounding all of these topics and this is likely to continue.  What do you think?


Academic Women Now: Experiences of mid-career academic women in Scotland

The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young Academy of Scotland has recently launched a new initiative to inspire women to strive for the top jobs in higher education by showcasing the careers of successful female academics. A booklet  – Women in Academia Now, edited by Aileen Fyfe, Ineke De Moortel and Sharon Ashbrook, has been published detailing the career paths of female members of the Young Academy of Scotland. ‘The brochure aims to facilitate and inspire further discussion and study about the career progression of women in different disciplines across the entire range of academic disciplines. By focusing on the mid-career stage, it offers a set of role models for early career researchers, many of whom still harbour doubts about whether academia is a good career for women.’

your career