Employment rate of mums with children hits 20-year high, figures show

Overall number of women in work also rose as many employers show willingness to offer flexible work structures

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Mums with children are at work in higher numbers than in any equivalent quarter over the last 20 years, while the overall level of all working-age females in employment has risen, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Data showed that more than three-quarters (75.6 per cent) of mothers with dependent children were currently in work, while the overall 16-64 female employment rate has hit 72.5 per cent, closer to the early 2019 record rate of 72.7 per cent.

With a third of working mothers also accessing special working arrangements, such as flexible or term-time hours – a higher level than compared to fathers (23.6 per cent) – it is clear many employers are re-imagining work to allow better access to those with care responsibilities.

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However, Jessica Chivers, coaching psychologist, author and host of the Comeback Coach podcast, explained that more still needed to be done to level the playing field between men and women, both at work and in the home.

“Without men taking on their fair share at home, women are at risk of burning out as they progress their careers, or not progressing because of the cost to family relationships and health,” she said.

With employed women spending more time on unpaid childcare and housework than employed men (85 and 167 minutes per day compared to 56 and 102 minutes per day), according to ONS data from March 2022, Chivers suggested that employers can take a central role in addressing the imbalance.

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She added: “This means employers encouraging men to take shared parental leave and proactively talking to them about how they’d like to alter their schedule to be active at home (eg. going to 0.8 FTE) when they become a father.”

Other considerations, she said, could include subsidisation of childcare for employees, allowing working parents to access lower hours for pro-rata pay, and ensuring more equitable career progression by engaging in career conversations earlier on and considering job shares for top roles.

Angelina Gentili, head of people operations at Personio, added that creating flexible working structures as well as space for peer-to-peer learning around balancing work and home life can also be key as long as it is supported by a proactive culture.

“We have a kids-centric Slack channel for parents to ask questions and share learnings on raising a family,” she said.

“But ultimately, adapting attitudes within the business is the most important change. The whole of a company – especially the leadership – needs to get behind women with dependent children.”

Similarly, Rebecca Blott, CEO of Castle Construction, said it was work cultures and not just HR policies that must change to better support women in work with flexibility and career progression.

“I have worked in roles where eyes are literally rolled if you walk out of the office before a certain time of day. We need to decide as a society how important it really is to see more women in the boardroom and in C-level roles because this will require a radical rethink of attitudes and working practices,” she said.

And while Blott doesn’t see the number of women in work with dependants as a wholly good thing – she said in a cost of living crisis it is a necessity for many families – she did add that the well-documented skills shortage might force attitudes to flexibility to change, which can help women, mothers, and parents.

She added: “I see this as a positive change because it’s better to focus on the value that an individual can bring to an organisation, rather than whether they can arrive by nine and stay until five.”

Emily Liddle, campaigns manager at the Fawcett Society, said it was “great that there are more women in work than ever before, but the growth of employment for women certainly hasn’t been matched with workplace structures, policies and environments that allow women to thrive.

"Women are more likely to be in low-paid roles, often working part-time to balance work, childcare and the demands of our busy lives and they remain paid less than their male peers, at every level.

She added: “We urge all employers to take a proactive approach to building gender equal workplaces, that foster the talents and skills of women. This starts in recruitment, by banning salary history that bakes in gender inequality and instead, base salaries on skills and experience.

"Within workplaces, offering flexible work as default supports all employees to balance the pressures of work and home life, with women seeing the biggest benefit. And by creating positive workplace cultures, ones where men are encouraged to take up parental leave, this will shift expectations that caring is women’s work and significantly impact on gender equality in the workforce.”