How women's employment changes after having a child

Professor Susan Harkness, Understanding Society Topic Champion for Social Policy, has been working with the Cabinet Office in a project looking at what happens to women's jobs when they come back from maternity leave. 

The project was commissioned by the Government in 2018 as part of a series of evidence reviews on family friendly policies and women's progression in the workplace. Using Understanding Society, Professor Harkness, along with Understanding Society researchers Dr Magda Borkowska and Dr Alina Pelikh, mapped women's employment pathways for one year before the birth of their child until three years afterwards. 

They found that women and men experience a large divergence in their career paths following the birth of a baby, with only 27.8 per cent of women being in full-time work or self-employed three years after childbirth, compared to 90 per cent of new fathers. Mothers were much more likely to move to part-time employment once they had a child and those who did return to work experienced career stagnation with a lower chance of getting a promotion. 

Key findings

  • Fewer than one-in-five of all new mothers, and 29 per cent of first-time mothers, return to full-time work in the first three years after maternity leave. This falls to 15 per cent after five years.
  • 17 per cent of women leave employment completely in the five years following childbirth, compared to four per cent of men.
  • A women’s likelihood of returning to work in the years after birth is independent of the number of children she has; what matters to her likelihood of working is her employment status the year before her child is born.
  • In the year before birth, the man was the main earner in 54 per cent of couples. This increases to 69 per cent three years after birth.
  • Mothers who leave employment completely are three times more likely to return to a lower-paid or lower-responsibility role than those who do not take a break.
  • For new mothers – but not fathers – staying with the same employer is associated with a lower risk of downward occupational mobility but also with lower chances of progression.

The study also found that being in a job before having a baby was is a key predictor of returning to work, particularly full-time, which suggests that policy should focus on getting young women into work before childbirth to help them achieve economic equality in later life.

Professor Harkness, from the University of Bristol, explained, "The results of our study highlight how gendered employment patterns are following childbirth, with men typically remaining in full-time work and women leaving full-time work.

“This loss in work experience, and in particular full-time work experience, is an important part of the explanation for the gender pay gap and suggests women still suffer economically as a result of taking on childcare responsibilities. Worryingly, it appears that women who return to employment typically see their chance of moving up the occupational ladder decrease. Women who return to the same employer risk becoming stuck in their job roles with limited career progression.”

You can read the summary of the report from the Government Equalities Office here.

The full report can be found here.