Helen Kowalewska argues that although many women with caring responsibilities want to work full-time, policies across industrialised countries are still channelling many into more poorly paid and part-time ‘mummy track’ careers.
The problem with mummy track careers
Women earn 33% less than men on average by the time their first child is 12 years old, according to a recent report on the UK. This is mainly because women are more likely than men to take career breaks for children and return as mothers to work in more poorly paid ‘flexible’ and part-time ‘mummy track’ careers that are often well below their skill level. This ‘motherhood penalty’ affects women in other industrialised countries too.
Yet, the mummy track isn’t just a problem of unequal pay and underuse of women’s skills. It’s also out of step with the preferences of many women. Across Europe, over 5 million women who are not working would like to be, while a quarter of women in part-time jobs want more hours.
Despite all of this, my research highlights how many countries are still encouraging women to take lengthy career breaks and cut their hours once they become mums.
Over the past few decades, leading social policy academics and organisations like the EU have called for gender equality and family-friendly policies to bring more women into the workforce. They identify women as a major untapped labour reserve and argue that getting mothers into work is the single most effective way of reducing child poverty.
Against this background, my research looked at welfare-to-work and work-life policies across a range of countries have made it easier for single parents to work. Policies for single parents are good indicators of how easy or difficult a country’s policies make it for all mothers to work since lone parents are almost always women. Indeed, research shows that 25% women will spend some time as a lone parent by age 40. What’s more, lone mothers are, by definition, women caring for children but living independently of a partner. So if policies are good enough that single mothers can balance work and childcare, then all mothers should be able to, even if their partner fails to do his fair share. As international evidence shows, this remains the case for most heterosexual couples with children.
Against the gender equality rhetoric, my study revealed that many countries still aren’t doing enough to dismantle the ‘mummy track’.
In places like Italy, Latvia and the US, a lack of affordable full-time childcare has made it difficult for single mothers who can’t rely on family or friends for childcare to work. These women are forced to either get by on very low benefits, or instead settle for often poorly paid ‘flexible’ jobs that can fit around their care responsibilities.
In other countries such as the UK, Australia and the Netherlands, employment and family policies give strong incentives for single mothers with young children to take extended career breaks and return to work on a part-time basis afterwards. As a result, these women may miss out on promotions, pay rises and other opportunities for career development.
The research also highlighted how even in the apparently gender utopian Nordic countries, women can become stuck on the mummy track. For instance, a quarter of women in Sweden who wanted to access training last year couldn’t do so because it didn’t fit around their care responsibilities.
Still, change is possible. Portugal is a case in point here. Unlike other Southern European countries, it showed up in my findings as supportive of lone mothers’ continuous, full-time employment. Since the 1990s, the government has increased the availability of affordable for under-sixes and extended the school week to cover a 40-hour workweek. This might help to explain why the percentage of the total female population with a full-time job has risen by 17% over the last decade.
But gender inequality is about more than the mummy track
Yet we shouldn’t assume that policies to help mothers stay in full-time work are the silver bullet to dealing with gender gaps in work and pay.
Even before they have children, women earn less than men. While equal pay and antidiscrimination laws have reduced the most obvious types of discrimination, working women are still held back by more hard-to-detect gender biases that we are often not even aware of. These biases stem from deeply-engrained stereotypes, such as the myth that “women can’t do maths”, and workplace cultures which inadvertently favour men by, for example, rewarding masculine traits like aggressive self-promotion. My next project therefore builds on my previous research by examining the role of government policies in tackling these unconscious gender biases.
Helen Kowalewska is an ESRC (1+3) PhD student at the University of Southampton. This blog discusses her forthcoming publication in The Journal of European Social Policy (JESP). Helen has been awarded the 2016 JESP/ESPAnet Doctoral Researcher Prize for her paper.