Tuesday 10 December 2019 6:23 pm

The parenthood penalty facing working mums and dads needs to be fixed

Annabel Denham is director of communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs

Earlier this year, journalist Emma Duncan asked why we work so hard to avoid our children. Will future generations look back and wonder why parents fought tooth and nail for time in the office?  

If today’s battles result in a childcare sector that offers real choice at a lower cost, and a society where having a baby no longer means reduced earnings or stunted career progression for women, judgment from our successors may be a price worth paying. 

One such battle occurred recently, when a Miss World contestant took legal action against the pageant after being stripped of her title for being a mother. Given the sexism and superficiality at the core of the competition, such an archaic and insulting rule shouldn’t be surprising. 

But the comments from one organiser — who speculated that it would be “unfair” on the child for the mother to be away for a year travelling, never mind where the father might be or the fact that plenty of working mothers spend time away from home — give credence to Stella Creasy’s claim in June that the equality battle is far from over.

This election campaign has thrust the issue of childcare to the fore. Politicians acknowledge that change is needed — that there is something wrong when becoming a mother means a penalty on pay, pensions and career prospects — but are clueless on what to do about it. 

Further, the experience of Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate Bruce Wilson, who was empty-chaired at a hustings after wanting to spend time with his newborn twins, suggests that British workers face a parenthood — as well as motherhood — penalty. One write-up said unkindly: “He was a bit of a mystery. First he was coming, then he wasn’t, then he appeared, then he left early. And all because of the arrival of twins. It later transpired that they’d arrived on Tuesday — two days prior.”

Despite many firms instituting flexible work arrangements and paid time off, taking up these offers can sabotage future wages or promotions. And even though shared parental leave was introduced in 2015 to narrow the “gender pay gap”, take up has been dismally low. 

Some suggest that, as lawmakers, MPs should lead by example, but Parliament currently allows just six months of proxy voting, and complaints of antisocial hours have been raised. The issue persists that, regardless of profession, parents are torn between prioritising time with their kids or focussing on the means of providing for them.

A study from the University of North Carolina found that it is worse for fathers to choose to stay at home in competitive job markets. 

They are more likely to have flexible working requests turned down, and women earn more than men for part-time work. But anyone cheered by these statements should bear in mind that they entrench the assumption that women should step aside and pick flexible or part-time roles, while men climb the ladder.

It has been said before, but more male chief executives should blaze a trail and show their colleagues that paternity leave or shared parental leave is acceptable. 

Emma Duncan suggests in the same article that automation could one day offer the solution, freeing people up to look after one another while computers take on the more boring tasks. She may be right, but we need action, not least from our politicians, now.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.