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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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad