11/05/2018 11:25 BST | Updated 11/05/2018 11:25 BST

Returning Mothers And The Gender Pay Gap

Last month, the extent of the pay differences between men and women working in the United Kingdom was revealed for the first time. More than three-quarters of the 10,000 large firms that provided details of their gender pay gap to the Government conceded that men were paid more than women. Other interesting takeaway points were that men made up the majority of higher-paid jobs and received higher bonuses than their female counterparts. Despite talk of ‘male-dominated’ sectors and ‘female-dominated’ sectors, the Guardian found there was not a single sector where women were paid more than men.

Less talked about was one of the main reasons why such a gap exists. Mothers returning to work are chronically underpaid and undervalued for their experience and ability. PwC’s November 2016 report into women ‘returners’ found that nearly two-thirds (65%) of returning professional women work below their potential salary level or level of seniority. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that before having a child the average female worker earns 10% to 15% less per hour than a male worker; after childbirth that increases steadily to 33% after around 12 years.

This has financial and economic implications but also emotional ones. It is a big ask to, in effect, punish new mothers by having them give up time with their children to do unrewarding and little-appreciated work and then expect them quietly to get on with the job. Similarly, for the 76% of professional women on career breaks who want to return to work, underpayment and low promotion prospects hardly represent powerful incentives. Data from PNC shows that female employees highly value appreciation for their work, and those that are less engaged cite a lack of this appreciation as a major reason why. Pay may not be entirely reflective of appreciation, but it does play a role. If women do not feel they are being paid as much as their male counterparts, their engagement will go down. Organisations with highly engaged employees have an average three-year revenue growth 2.3 times greater than companies whose employees were only engaged at an average level, according to UNC Kenan-Flager Business School.

Part-time working mothers are hit particularly hard. Mothers seeking flexible working arrangements so they can care for their children miss out on the earnings growth associated with staying in a permanent job. In fact there is ‘virtually no wage progression’ for part-timers, says IFS associate director Monica Costa Dias. ‘It should be a priority for governments and others to understand the reasons for this,’ she told the FT. ‘Addressing it would have the potential to narrow the gender way gap significantly.’ Cultural norms come into play here. For men, part-time employment rates were effectively unaffected by the arrival of a first child, according to the IFS.

The evidence, and the experience of thousands of women, clearly demonstrates that there is a substantial ‘motherhood penalty’ in the professional world, and this is a major contributor to the gender pay gap, which remains about 18.4% in the United Kingdom. There are many ways we can narrow this gap, but an effective start from this point on would be to eliminate discrimination of returning mothers.