22/03/2016 09:58 GMT | Updated 23/03/2017 05:12 GMT

Motherhood Penalty Now Writ Large

I wrote about this issue in Huffington Post for International Women's Day and I thought I couldn't be shocked any more by the facts about gender inequality in the workplace, but I was wrong. New Equality and Human Rights Commission research out today finds that three in four working mums - that's 390,000 of them - have had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience at work during their pregnancy, maternity leave and/or on their return to work. This comes on the same day as the Women and Equalities Select Committee publish their Gender Pay Gap Inquiry Report recommending some significant policy changes to address the unequal impact of caring roles which is a major contributing cause of the gender pay gap.

So what is our problem with working mums? Fawcett research may shed some light here. We found that when a woman has a baby, 46% of people believe she becomes less committed to her job. But when a man becomes a dad, 29% of people believe he becomes more committed. So the assumption is that he will work harder to support his family, while she will be less interested in work because she will want to be at home with her baby. Evidence shows the contrary though in that employers who have good employment practices to support women returners find that their retention rates are higher and the mothers they employ prove to be loyal employees and are more likely to stay for longer.

Leave arrangements and flexible working opportunities for dads are still lagging far behind what fathers at work want. Seven in 10 working parents (little difference between mums and dads here) say they are looking for flexibility to combine work and care, yet just 6% of jobs are advertised as flexible working jobs. Four in 10 dads lie to their bosses to spend time caring for their kids.

The Select Committee has addressed this issue head on and made a series of recommendations to address the pay gap which remains stubbornly large at 19% for all workers (and a 14% mean gap for full-time employees). I will look at some of them here. Firstly, that all jobs should be presumed to be flexible unless there is a good business case for them not to be. This is something that Fawcett has been calling for and it is very welcome. We believe this needs to be underpinned by new regulations requiring employers to adopt this approach. It could be a game changer as we would be starting with a different assumption. So much of the gender inequality we face is due to the default assumptions we make.

Secondly, the recommendation that dads get three months of well paid leave is also likely to have a significant impact if implemented. The take-up of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) is predicted to be 2-8%. A dedicated period of paid leave for dads is likely to shift the expectation from women caring to men caring which is exactly the direction of travel that we need. But, we also need to see this as a journey towards equalising leave entitlements, so that we can start to tackle the motherhood penalty which leads to such widespread negative experiences for working mums. After all, this is 2016. Just pinching myself here.

Finally, the committee also recommends carers' leave to support those caring for older or disabled relatives. This is vital given our ageing society. We have to start recognising and valuing care. Supporting people (the majority of whom are women) to combine work and care is the first step towards that.

The bigger return for employers and for the UK economy is clear with £600 billion being added to the value of the economy if we close the gender pay gap. We have the best educated, best qualified female labour force we have ever had. And yet we are wasting that talent and investment as a result of poor, shortsighted (and sometimes illegal) practice. Definitely time for a game-changer. Let's hope the Government rises to the challenge.