Helping mothers return to work is a gender equality issue

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Michaela Bruckmayer, analyst and Joanna Hofman, associate director at RAND Europe, discusses how taking a career break to have children comes with a cost to women in the EU and how thinking needs to change to best tackle the issue

The arrival of a baby can often mean a career break or a transition to self-employment or part-time work for mothers. Compare this to fathers who usually continue in formal, full-time employment when they have a family.

In 2019, nearly 42 million adults in the EU lived in households with at least one child aged six and under. Only 32% of them (13 million) lived in households where all adults were working full-time. The person not working full-time, or at all, is still primarily the woman.

The implications of either taking a career break or only working part-time for a number of years include potentially lower wages, also known as the motherhood wage penalty, and a potential deterioration of skills due to being out of the workplace for many years and missing out on training and development opportunities.

A RAND Europe study explores how young parents in the EU could be encouraged to return to work following the birth of a child and highlights the factors that affect parents, and especially mothers’, decision to do so. These range from personal and household characteristics, such as level of education, number of children and the availability of a support network, to prevalent societal attitudes about gender roles and the distribution of unpaid care work among men and women. A determining factor also includes working conditions, for example, access to flexible working.

Policies such as access to family leave, job protection and childcare options, can play a large role. Every family is different, and accordingly, a mother’s preference may differ too, and these are subject to many factors that fall under the responsibilities of national governments, employers, and the EU.

Retaining women in the job market has always been a goal, even during times of relative prosperity. It has now become more pressing with the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that more women work in sectors most affected by lockdown measures (like hospitality). Mothers, therefore, have taken the brunt of job losses compared to fathers. Mothers have also provided more childcare and home schooling during lockdown.

So, what can be done?

The study identifies possible solutions to support mothers in these difficult times. First, improving accessibility and affordability of childcare provision is key. Secondly, this needs to be accompanied by well-thought-out family leave policies – what matters is the length of time when leave is paid, the level at which it is compensated, and who is entitled to it. Paradoxically, longer (and well-paid) paternity leave and periods of parental leave reserved for fathers may help mothers come back to work sooner.

Thirdly, policymakers may also need to change the way they think about this problem – it is not just about bringing women back to paid work. As Criado Perez argues – women are doing essential work but they are just not paid for it. Or not enough. It is about rethinking the unpaid care work, the low-paid sectors dominated by women and how work is valued, to ensure equal pay for equal work.

However, more could also be done by employers. Some company interventions have proved effective, for example, lactation programmes to support women to breastfeed at work by providing both time and private space to express milk. Other interventions dedicated to mothers returning from leave – such as coaching and mentoring programmes, enhanced contacts with the employer or line manager – are promising but still need data to demonstrate they work.

Employers may want to make their approach less about enabling women to return to work and more about helping both parents reconcile work and childcare responsibilities. They could support supplemental leave for fathers; offer pay compensation that exceeds statutory requirements; and introduce champions to encourage fathers to take parental leave and consequently help women to stay in employment.

In the end, both EU employers and policymakers play a crucial role in ensuring that women are not unnecessarily disadvantaged when they have children.


Michaela Bruckmayer is an analyst and Joanna Hofman is an associate director in the home affairs and social policy research group at RAND Europe.


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