Job quality contribute to working mothers’ struggles

How much does becoming a mother affect career prospects and the general wellbeing of women? How much does it drive their choices and fuel the gender pay gap? For years now, it has been acknowledged that, generally, female workers with children follow a very different path than the men who become fathers. They experience setbacks regarding job opportunities, salary, type of contract offered, and number of hours worked. Mothers are penalised by the lack of direct and practical support in raising their sons/daughters (the village that helped parents to care for the younger ones is long gone); by the widespread culture that associates (even if subtly) womanhood with motherhood – with all the consequences that this implies; and workplaces that have yet to keep up with new needs, awareness and balances within families.

As it appears more clearly today, the penalty mothers face when choosing to have a child is not just related to how much a job pays and how many hours or what contract or prospects it includes. Sure enough, a lot has to do with money and opportunities – children are a costly business. However, recent insights highlight how much job quality influences choices, outcomes, and wellbeing.

Nonetheless, though, how female workers are differently affected if they have children or not and compared to male colleagues is a topic that has yet to receive the needed attention – argues the UK ongoing research “Who can ‘have it all’?” funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Its recent findings* accentuate that women face worse employment opportunities, career options, and workplace experiences, especially when they have children. «Mothers are over-represented in roles classed as “poor quality” due to the lack of control over hours and tasks, poor access to formal and informal flexibility, few benefits, few promotion prospects and a lack of access to training and development opportunities.»

Earnings and careers

Women see their incomes cut in half, on average** when they become mothers. And the situation does not improve in the following years. According to researchers at Columbia University, the reason is not only explained, as previously assumed, by women’s choice to take time from work or reduce their worked hours to care for their children – consequently losing money or dropping out of the labour market altogether. They maintain that «even women who, before giving birth, were the primary breadwinners in their families tend to pause their careers and endure huge income losses afterwards. […], this undercuts a theory that many economists have used to try to explain the motherhood penalty in the past, which posits that couples strategically decide to have the lower-earning partner — historically the mother — shoulder the burden of child-rearing. The data suggest that many dads who ought to be stepping up and taking charge of the childcare, for the economic wellbeing of their families, aren’t doing so.»

To add insult to injury, working mothers struggle to get back into their previous roles and working schedules while, at the same time, they watch their male partners or colleagues thrive in their careers because they are generally seen as more reliable and decisive when they become fathers.

Motherhood penalty and gender pay gap

In broadening the view, recent researches show the different hues of the motherhood penalty, highlighting how nuanced it is. As Nuffield’s study on parenthood and job quality reads, «Motherhood is not always associated with more flexibility, and job quality disadvantages are multifaceted. Working part-time is a strong driver of job quality differences, suggesting that reduced hours after motherhood impacts job quality in addition to worsening women’s pay.»

Adding to the mental load they face, working mothers are under constant money-related pressure – the lack of affordable childcare is a growing problem in most Western countries -and, consequently, at risk of stress and burnout. Many lack fair and meaningful occupations, and neither employers nor legislators seem to consider the issue effectively enough. According to research, job quality can affect the wellbeing of workers and easily spill over to the families’ atmosphere, as much as unemployment. Moreover, it can profoundly influence productivity, performance and absenteeism.

Parenthood has become a focus on gender inequality in the workplace. With lower earnings and fewer worked hours, the penalty of having children is regarded as a major contributor to the gender pay gap and in neutralising women’s educational gains achieved in the last 25 years. But mostly, the focus has often been on mothers. Less so on the fathers’ side, thus shadowing some gender differences and inequalities at work. Considering that parenthood is a critical point in workers’ lives, a broader perspective will help identify the domains needing intervention, from better working opportunities to more comprehensive childcare plans.

The lack of support, prospects, and increasing costs influence more women to postpone motherhood or even avoid it. So much so that some today are not ashamed of confirming they regret having children.


* The research is published in the academic journal Social Indicators Research.

** Findings from a research conducted by Columbia University and presented in Columbia Magazine, “The true price of motherhood”, winter 2023/2024

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  • Gloria |

    Ottimo articolo in cui sono evidenziati le notevoli problematiche delle madri non sempre supportate nè dal partner nè dalle istituzioni.Ciò si riversa sia sulla loro salute mentale che nel rapporto di coppia che in modo più ampio sul benessere dell’intera fam8glia è delle sue relazioni sociali.Wualcosa si sta facendo in questo campo ,ma è ancora troppo poco.Una società del futuro deve essere più inclusiva e le scarse aziende che supportino la madre di servizi di cui ha bisogno sono ancora a macchia di leopardo.Tutelare la madre e i suoi figli previene spese sanitarie per il suo buon out e situazioni disfunzionali per l” intera famiglia e per una società che dovrà fare i conti con un denatalità e rapporti sociali disfunzionali

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