Gender earnings equality inches forward, but why hasn’t policy kept up?

Slowly but surely, the persistent inequality in earnings between men and women is declining.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

Slowly but surely, the persistent inequality in earnings between men and women is declining.

It is an established fact that there is little gender gap in pay for those in their mid to late-twenties, but that childbirth and the career break that often follows it drags the earnings of women down compared to males of a similar age.

This ‘motherhood pay penalty’ has a negative impact on family living standards, as well as highlighting the low level of policy support we offer families, and mothers in particular, to reduce the barriers to work following childbirth.

But even among families with children, the status quo is shifting. New research by IPPR published today shows that since the late 1990s, a million more British mothers are earning half or more of family earnings. All in all, around a third of mothers are now the main breadwinner in their family, up from less than a quarter a decade and a half ago.

Women are both earning more and working more, with the gap in hours worked and hourly wages of mothers and fathers shrinking considerably.

What is driving this change? Partly it reflects the gap in overall employment rates, which remains large but has shrunk enormously over recent decades. There are more opportunities for women to work and they face less workplace discrimination than in the past.

At the same time, men are performing worse in the labour market than ever before, partly caused by de-industrialisation and the shift to a service economy.

More fundamentally, an enormous cultural shift has taken place; gender roles at home and at work have started to break down, with the outdated model of a male breadwinner and female home-maker no longer representative of the lived family experience of most people.

While this change has taken place across different family types, persistent gaps still remain between groups, with some families being left behind in this shift. Fewer younger mothers, those with low or no qualifications, and those from an ethnic minority background are breadwinning as compared to older, highly-skilled white mothers.

This is unlikely to be solely caused by some groups of mothers preferring to stay at home than work, the danger is rather that for some, real choice in family preferences for work and care is being held back by external factors.

One of the biggest disparities is between families with a youngest child of different ages. In the latest year for which we have data, over a third of mothers with school-age children are earning the majority of family income, up from around 23 per cent in the late 1990s. On the other hand, only around 21 per cent of mothers of pre-school children are breadwinning.

What this points towards is the established fact that some of the greatest barriers to maternal employment and therefore higher family earnings, living standards, and reduced poverty risk, are faced in the early years following childbirth.

Percentage of mothers earning half or more of family income by age of youngest child


While the proportion of mothers breadwinning in families with pre-school children has risen since the 1990s, what is worrying is the fact that policy seems to be moving in the opposite direction. While mothers are going out to work in greater numbers, in many areas policy assumes that a mother’s place is in the home.

The structure of parental leave in the UK is geared towards fathers taking a much smaller role in caring for new-borns than mothers, meaning it is the woman who is more likely to lose their attachment to the labour market following childbirth. Inequality in access to high quality flexible working also means many mothers face few options in the labour market beyond low-paid, low-skilled part-time work.

The lack of a comprehensive system of universal affordable childcare, combined with the high and growing cost of private provision, means that for many families work simply does not pay. And the shift to universal credit will generate all sorts of perverse incentives for mothers in couples to remain out of work rather than re-join the labour market.

In this context talk of a married couples tax allowance seems woefully antiquated, going against the grain of the changing experience of most families.

By not acknowledging in policy terms the fundamental shift taking place in families’ preferences and attitudes towards work, we risk holding mothers and families back.

Having more families with all parents in work is a good thing, alleviating child poverty, raising living standards, reducing gender inequality and ensuring greater long-term stability in the public finances. And the data suggests that more and more families are actively choosing to combine care and work.

But to continue this trend requires policy to actively support families decision to work, rather than close down opportunities to make real choices about work and care.

The IPPR report, ‘Who’s Breadwinning: working mothers and the new face of family support’ is available here

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