Why women are no better off having a baby now than in the 70s

Heidi Pullig

Equal pay day – ‘the day in the year where women effectively stop earning relative to men because of the gender pay gap’ – is set for Sunday 20 November this year. While the average gender pay gap is much lower than it was 40 years ago – indeed it closed slightly by 0.6% last year – not all women have shared in this catch up. 

From examining micro data from 1978 to today, Dr Amanda Gosling, Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Kent, has found that the gap in pay between higher educated mothers and fathers (the ‘motherhood penalty’) is as large today as it was 40 years ago. 

‘Barriers to career progression for mothers with some post-school education have hardly shifted,’ she said.  ‘The gap in pay between mothers and fathers looks very similar now as it did in the late 1970s. The story for Gen Xers is the same for Boomers and the Millennials.’ 

Meanwhile, the change for mothers without any higher education has fallen flat this past decade after years of steady progress. Dr Gosling said: ‘For women without any post school education, the story for mothers – from the 1970s until quite recently – paints a picture of fast progress. The percentage gap has almost halved from almost 80% in the late 1970s to about 40% in 2012. However, over the last eight years the process of catch up has stalled.’

Dr Gosling’s findings show that today, the median hourly earnings of mothers are currently only about 72% of fathers, meaning that if women do take time out to become mothers it is unlikely, on average, that they will never be able to make up the 28% shortfall to catch up with their male peers.  

This gap is considerably larger than the one represented by the gender pay gap, and poses a much bigger issue when considered with the current cost of living crisis. Dr Samantha Evans, Lecturer in Human Resource Management at Kent Business School, University of Kent, added:  

‘Women are more likely to work in lower paid, precarious employment than their male counterparts, and it is understood that the cost-of-living crisis is disproportionately impacting these women because they are less able to absorb the inflationary shock of higher energy and food bills. These inflated household costs become bigger proportion of income for lower paid women, who are also less likely to have savings to cover such increases in the cost-of-living.  

‘For mothers, the cost of childcare is a big issue as it puts additional pressure on parents, usually mother’s, financial resources. Childcare costs have risen significantly in the UK in recent years. A recent survey of parents found that childcare costs have forced 43% of mothers to consider leaving their jobs and 43% to work fewer hours. The same survey found that 25% of parents say that they have had to cut down on expenses such as food, heating or clothing to afford the increase in childcare costs with 99% of parents saying that the cost of childcare is making the cost-of-living crisis even more challenging. 

‘When women try to respond to the cost-of-living crisis by seeking out better paid roles, motherhood again makes the job market more complicated for women. Due to their childcare needs, changing jobs can be more challenging for women and they are also less likely to be geographically mobile to do their caring responsibilities. 

‘All of this paints a very concerning picture for women this winter, as evidence clearly links financial wellbeing to employee performance because financial distress has a detrimental impact on employee wellbeing and engagement. Evidence also shows that women are more likely to be suffering from burnout post-Covid largely due to the pressures they were under during the pandemic taking main responsibility for home-schooling.’