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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.

Simply bringing London’s maternal employment rate in line.
London mothers with dependent children have an employment rate of 53%, compared to 65% for those across the UK. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.