Does motherhood cost too much?

Women's rights group The Fawcett Society says that being a mum has a devastating impact on earnings.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The title of the report, Not having it all: how motherhood reduces women’s pay and employment prospects pretty much gives the lie to what it says – that motherhood is a disproportionately expensive business in terms of reduced earning potential compared to fatherhood.

Before they become parents, the report finds that both men and women are pretty much equally likely to be employed, but that childbirth, in its words, marks the beginning of a ‘great divide’ which apparently continues even after the kids have grown up and left home. 57% of mothers with kids under five and in paid work compared to 90% of fathers.

And even mums who do work full time experience a pay penalty, earning 21.6% less than men on average, whereas the pay gap for non-mothers is ‘only’ 9%.  Taken together those two findings add up to a pretty substantial opportunity cost, as the economists say.

The report also suggests that women still bear the lion’s share of the burden of childcare, especially over school holidays when mothers are a whopping nine times more likely to take time off to look after kids than fathers. (This particular finding came as something of a shock to your correspondent, who is himself looking forward to a week off in the near future to do exactly that. Legoland is a distinct possibility). 

The implication here of course is that women and men (and indeed mothers and fathers) should be able to inhabit the world of work on a more equal footing. A well-understood and widely supported principle which we at MT are all in favour of.

 But there are a couple of holes in the report's reasoning, not least the fact that a lot more women than men actively choose not to go back to work, either for a year or two after giving birth or right up until their kids have grown up and left home. If they can afford to do so, who can blame them? Your kids are only young once. But it’s inevitable that having done so, one’s desirability to employers declines.

If you take several years off work, whether man or woman, you are going to lose touch with the latest developments in your area of expertise, and also with the key players. You value as an employee takes a hit, but you gain in other, less tangible ways. You pays your money and takes your choice

Having said that, we’re all in favour of dads taking a bigger role in looking after their kids and easing the burden on mums, who do deal with more than their fair share. But the idea that people of either sex can ‘have it all’ and that there is no downside to the choices we make – whether as parents or otherwise – is unhelpful and unrealistic.


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