Why working mothers are screwed

Working mums are paying a 'motherhood penalty', missing out on pay rises and promotions.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

I don’t much feel like writing today. And it’s not because I didn’t have my double espresso this morning. It’s because of the demoralising news that I’ll be lagging behind my male colleagues and missing out on promotions and pay rises for years to come.

After having my second daughter, Edith, last year, I took nine months off, then washed the puke and mush out my hair and returned to work part-time as MT’s features ed. I’m living the work/life balance dream. But, according to a report out today from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), I’ll be paying the ‘motherhood penalty’ until our girls are packed off to uni.

Women currently earn around 18% less an hour than men. For women who return to work part-time after having a baby, that monetary gulf widens to a staggering 33% over the subsequent 12 years. Meanwhile, any kind of progress on the gender pay gap is being stalled by the fact that men are 40% more likely to be promoted into senior management roles than women.

Theresa May wasn’t wrong when she said ‘If you're a woman, you still earn less than a man.’ She could have added: ‘And if you’re a working mother, you’re screwed.’

It’s not that women lack ‘vertical ambition’. Many women miss out on promotions and pay rises simply because they don’t ask for them.

‘A lot of this comes down to confidence – and having enough of it to have an open discussion with your boss about your career before you’re pregnant, when you’re pregnant, when you’re on maternity leave and when you’re back at work,’ says Stephanie Brimacombe, chief marketing officer at communications firm VCCP and its parent company Chime, a 35 Women Under 35 star and a working mum. ‘We need to be more open about wanting to have a great family life and a career. And we shouldn’t be penalised for wanting both.’ 

Jenny Campbell, chief executive of YourCash Europe, says women should be tougher at work. When she worked at NatWest in her mid-20s, she received a letter from the HR department telling her that her career had been assessed and she was ‘grade B’. Her male counterpart received a similar letter, telling him he was ‘grade A’. ‘We were both manager’s assistants – but I knew I was doing a far better job than him. So I challenged the grading with my boss,’ she says. ‘It turns out that they just assumed I would have children and therefore didn’t have the same prospects as my male colleague.’ She worked hard, proved her mettle and, 18 months later, got the A grade.

Campbell did go on to have children – but she didn’t let that hamper her career. ‘I didn’t tell anyone when I was pregnant with my second child; I was waiting to hear on a promotion and didn’t want that to influence their decision,’ she admits. She got the job. And she only took six weeks’ maternity leave. She went on to become the only female CEO in the ATM industry

Rebecca Alexander, an executive coach at The Coaching Studio and an MT columnist, reckons women need to get more savvy at networking: ‘Men often "check in" with those more senior to them. They’re more likely to mention what they’re working on, and will follow up every so often with an email. In other words, they’re in people’s minds. Women are less likely to do this yet it’s exactly this sort of low-key visibility that counts for so much when promotions are discussed.’

At the end of last year, the government announced plans for new legislation (due to come into effect in April 2017) to tackle the gender pay gap, including making it compulsory for large companies to report on how much they pay their male and female staff. But women need to help themselves, too. If you deserve a pay rise, ask for it. If you want a promotion, apply for it. The fact that you spend half your time singing Wind the Bobbin Up and dealing with dirty nappies doesn’t make you any less qualified.

I’m off to speak to my boss...

Looking to super-charge your career? Come to our Inspiring Women conference on 16 November. Guest speakers include TalkTalk CEO Dido Harding, Clydesdale Bank COO Debbie Crosbie and top chef Angela Hartnett. Check out the programme here.



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