It's time to end London's motherhood penalty

Simply bringing the city's maternal employment rate in line with the rest of the country would mean an additional 100,000 working mothers.

It has been over a year since research by the Fawcett Society declared London the worst place to live in the UK as a woman. Eighteen months on, as the coalition cuts continue to bite further, there is little to suggest that living standards for women are improving in the capital. Inequality in the workplace is identifiable up and down the pay ladder. That the upper echelons are sparsely populated by women and that the bottom rungs are dominated by them illustrates the breadth of the issue. 

Of course, not all the factors which contribute to lower living standards for women are directly attributable to the cuts. Much of them relate to the unavoidable fact that London, like all cities, is a capital of superlatives. So while London can boast of possessing the biggest, the highest-earning and the most qualified, it is also home to the most unequal workforce in the UK. There are some obvious factors that contribute to this unwelcome statistic; the public sector, which has a strong record in employing women, has a smaller share of the workforce. A number of high paid jobs frequently dominated by men create a grotesque caricature of the existing gender gap in average salaries.

London is also the city where the motherhood penalty bites the hardest. London mothers with dependent children have an employment rate of 53%, compared to 65% for those across the UK. Reducing this gap requires understanding the motivating factors for women to return to work, and the barriers that may prevent them from doing so, as highlighted in a recent report by the Timewise Foundation, which followed the outcomes of women seeking a return to work after motherhood. The conclusion - the costs of going back to work simply do not outweigh the benefits of staying at home. Outgoing costs such as childcare, which is 24% higher than the national average, are hard to for mothers and families to justify in the face of low-paid part-time work and the lack of well-paid part-time work in administrative and professional roles.

The London premium that can be identified among other sectors of the workforce is therefore significantly lower for working mothers. Over 40% of part-time jobs are low paid, compared to just 10% of full-time jobs. As a result, a third of all low-paid jobs in London are held by women working part time. My own mother juggled two part-time jobs as this was simply the only way to fit in shifts around childcare.

I am reluctant to accept that the only solution to this form of inequality in London’s workforce is the 'critical mass' solution – that is the hope that as workplaces increasingly near a gender balance of employees, employment practice will become increasingly woman friendly. Practical interventions that stimulate structural and cultural change are required. Whether through ensuring access to Lone Parent Personal Advisors or supporting on the ground schemes, it is important that mothers are a target group of support and training.

I have seen this work in my own constituency. Twice a week, Monique Knight, herself a mother of five can be found handing out flyers at the gates of a primary school in North Tottenham, chatting with mums as they drop off their young children. Once the bell rings, it is not just the pupils who head into the classroom, but a number of their mums too, receiving training in CV writing, online applications and presentation skills. 

We must encourage businesses to increase the availability and range of part-time positions, and to ensure those taking them receive the support they need. A flexible work environment can have a doubly positive effect on women in broadening not just their own childcare options but also those of their partner through use of paternal leave and similar practices.

Simply achieving the modest target of bringing London’s maternal employment rate in line with the rest of the country would bring an additional 100,000 working mothers into London’s workforce. With the subsequent impact on the economy, household, and indeed working mothers themselves, this is certainly a goal worth striving for. 

London mothers with dependent children have an employment rate of 53%, compared to 65% for those across the UK. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

All photos: India Bourke
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“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.