It’s no secret that the working world is not designed to accommodate motherhood. Working women who have children are often forced to leave their jobs due to a lack of parental leave, child care, or flexible work options, and the years they spend out of the workforce mean they earn significantly less than their peers when they return—with single mothers and women of color bearing the brunt of this “motherhood penalty”. Women also are more likely than men to make career sacrifices in order to raise children—while fathers are becoming more involved in their children’s upbringing, mothers still do the lion’s share of parenting and fathers who take advantage of family leave or flexibility are still stigmatized for it.
A new UK study finds that at least for women in low-skilled professions, having a second child often leads mothers to sharply reduce their work hours or drop out of the workforce altogether. Marianne Calnan at the CIPD outlines the findings:
While having one child has a relatively limited effect on workforce participation, women in low-skilled jobs reduced the amount they worked each week by an average of 18 hours after the arrival of their second child, according to the study from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics (LSE).
Those in skilled roles worked an average of five hours less per week. The study, which examined 3,000 UK women who had their first child between 2000 and 2001, also found that the proportion of women in unskilled jobs working more than 20 hours a week dropped by more than half (50 per cent) after they had their second child. In total, 60 per cent of women with one child aged under four were working to some extent, but the figures dipped dramatically when a second child arrived.
Researchers concluded that women in lower-skilled jobs were severely affected by the cost of childcare: the latest figures from the Family and Childcare Trust put the cost of a nursery place at £212 per week outside London and £284 in the capital.
The effects of having multiple children is an understudied facet of the lives of working parents. It is especially interesting to consider the implications of this effect in economies with high birth rates, if this study’s finding holds universally. While the UK’s fertility rate is high by European standards at 1.9 births per woman, it remains below the replacement rate of 2.1 and the global rate of about 2.45. If having a second child has such a strong effect on women’s likelihood or ability to work full-time, what does this mean for working women in fast-growing African and Middle Eastern countries where it is typical to have four or five children over the course of a lifetime?
The study also underscores how central the challenge of child care is to retaining mothers in the workplace. Just as in the UK, child care is increasingly unaffordable for American families, even though many child care workers suffer from low pay and exploitive working conditions and the quality of services available is often underwhelming at best. This challenge is top of mind for many working families, especially low- and middle-income families, and has become an issue in the presidential election.
Organizations that want to keep their talented female employees around after they have children may need to figure out ways to support them in this regard, whether by helping out with child care costs or providing the flexibility they need to care for their children themselves. Another way to help is to encourage fathers to take on more parenting responsibilities: Studies have shown that robust paternity leave policies result in higher earnings and greater leadership representation for women, and as fathers become more involved as parents, this makes the work-life balancing act easier for mothers.