Women more likely to give up work after having a baby regardless of earnings, research finds

Study reveals more mothers than fathers leave even when they’re the higher earner, prompting experts to warn of ‘outdated’ female-focused policies

Women in heterosexual relationships are more likely than their male partners to sacrifice paid work after they have a child regardless of who was earning more money before parenthood, a study has found.

Researchers have said this calls into question the belief that childcare responsibilities more often fall to women in opposite-sex couples because they already earn less by the time they have a child, and that employers need to focus on addressing societal norms around traditional gender roles in their parental leave policies.

The poll of 5,591 heterosexual couples in England, conducted by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), found that in 13 per cent of relationships where women earned more than their partners before parenthood, the women left work after having a child. This compared to just 3 per cent of similar relationships where the lower-paid male partner left work.

The research also found that even when women who earned more than their partner before parenthood continued to work, on average they reduced their hours of paid work by 26 per cent.

In contrast, fathers faced little to no reduction in their paid hours regardless of who earned more before the child was born.

Across the sample group, regardless of who was earning the most, in 38 per cent of the relationships where both people worked the woman was the one who sacrificed paid work after the birth of a child.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

Alison Andrew, senior research economist at the IFS and co-author of the report, said the findings showed that how parents divide up paid work and childcare could not be “straightforwardly explained by pre-existing differences in their career trajectories.

“Even where the mother was the main earner before having a child, she is much more likely to give up work or reduce her hours after becoming a parent than the father. So the roots of these gender differences cannot all be traced back to which parent was in the better position, career-wise, to be the primary breadwinner.”

Because of this, employers looking to address their gender pay gaps needed to base their policies on an understanding of the social norms that drive decisions parents make around sharing childcare, said Mark Franks, director of welfare at the Nuffield Foundation, which helped fund the research – norms that were evident in the extra burden predominantly seen by mothers as a result of the recent school closures, he said.

“Parental leave policies and employer practices primarily focused on women will reinforce such effects,” he said, adding that employers had a duty to shape potentially outdated, female-focused policies and practices accordingly. 

“Policy also needs to take account of wider systemic problems in the labour market that see part-time employees, who are much more likely to be women, financially disadvantaged compared to those who work full time,” said Franks.

The report concluded that parental leave policies that were more generous towards new mothers than new fathers could be reinforcing a gendered division of labour, “incentivising mothers, but not fathers, to take on the role of primary carer for their infant child”.

The data was gathered by the IFS and Institute of Education in March 2020 as part of the ongoing Deaton Review of Inequalities.