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

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.