Where’s mum (you lazy…)?

By Jonny Gifford, Organisational Behaviour Adviser

Couples have had the right to shared parental leave for two years now. We can start to see some impact, with a decline in traditional patterns of employment and parenting, more fathers working less to spend time with their children and more mothers working full-time.(1) But so far, it’s been a pretty slow decline. The CIPD’s Labour Market Outlook estimated from data collected in summer 2016 that just 5% of new dads who were eligible for shared parental leave had taken up this right. (2)

Most research in the area shows that mothers of young children often face a ‘penalty’ in decisions on their pay and careers. (3) From both the experience of many working mothers and ‘harder’ data on earnings suggest that taking time out of work to look after children can set them back significantly, far more than the time they take off would warrant.

So what happens to ‘motherhood penalties’ when a more balanced sharing of childcare is on the cards? Research presented at the CIPD’s Applied Research Conference last December shows that the picture is complex. The research, conducted by Jasmine Kelland of Plymouth University, shows that it’s no longer as simple as a straight ‘motherhood penalty’.

Kelland’s research explores important questions that this situation throws up. For the couples who do challenge traditional divisions of labour, what attitudes do they face from employers, colleagues and wider society? And could those attitudes be part of the reason for the low take up of shared parental leave?

One part of Kelland’s research was a survey of managers, who were asked to score fictitious applicant CVs of working parents for a customer services role. It found that when applying for part-time roles, it was the fathers not the mothers who faced a ‘penalty’ in judgements on their likely suitability for the job. This was seen in ratings of their perceived competence, workplace commitment and ‘promotability’, and was especially apparent in their perceived ‘hirability’.

From the way managers discussed these CVs in focus group – another part of the same research – we can start to see why. There were some markedly negative comments about the working fathers, such as, ‘he is obviously up to the job but is he a high flyer? Is he slower off the mark?’ or even more blatantly, ‘I just think – lazy bastard’. There were also managers who viewed these fathers with suspicion, making comments such as: ‘I just wonder why he is applying for the job part-time … I wonder, why?’

Furthermore, in-depth interviews found that part-time fathers had experienced such prejudice, even if in subtle ways. One interviewee put it, ‘I was always asked, “Where’s Jacob’s mother?” – things like that.’ More generally, there was a sense that workplace cultures could be such that working fathers were ‘almost waiting to be given permission’ to reduce their hours for childcare, whereas ‘for mums, it’s not a negotiation’.

The tables have clearly not turned. Fathers wanting to work part-time to spend more time raising children may face some forms of prejudice more than mothers, but the ultimate impact is to reinforce traditional norms that can make it harder for mothers to maintain their position in the labour market.

This can be seen in the fact that, in both part-time and full-time positions, Kelland found that working mothers were less likely to be singled out for being dedicated to their family than working fathers. And the qualitative research threw up many examples when mothers who work full-time were treated with suspicion, along the lines of ‘Why isn’t [her partner] providing?’

The UK’s policy on shared parental leave aimed to give parents more choice and flexibility in caring for children and maintaining their positions in the labour market; and more explicitly, to encourage more fathers to play a greater role in caring for young children. These aims are still far off.

For one thing, the legal situation is far from wrapped up. Rights to shared parental leave and statutory shared parental pay do mark a step change, but the situation remains unclear in other areas, such as enhanced maternity and paternity pay. This remains the case despite the first related employment tribunal ruling, in which a father was awarded £28,321 for discrimination after his employer refused to pay his shared parental leave at the same rate as his wife, employed at the same company (see CIPD 2016).

Kelland’s research adds to this, by highlighting that traditional societal and workplace attitudes run deep and are out of step with what many couples want. Mothers of young children may fare better than fathers when up for part-time work, but in the long run, such ‘fatherhood forfeits’ will do working mothers no favours. They reinforce traditional stereotypes that make it harder for parents to share childcare responsibilities more equally.

From HR policies, to the attitudes of colleagues and wider society, we need to embrace the fact that working fathers may want to take leave or reduce their hours. It is an important step, both in gender equality and, quite simply, in enabling people to shape their work to suit their lives.


(1) WORKING FAMILIES (2017) The modern families index 2017 – full report [online]. London: Working Families. Available at: http://workingfamilies.org.uk/wpcontent/uploads/2017/01/Modern-Families-Index_Full-Report.pdf CIPD (2106)

(2) Labour Market Outlook: Focus on working parents. London: CIPD. Available at: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/emp-law/maternity-paternity-rights/outlook-working-parents

(3) See Kelland J (2017) ‘Fatherhood forfeits’ and ‘motherhood penalties’: An exploration of UK management selection decision-making on parent applicants. London: CIPD. Available at https://www.cipd.co.uk/learn/events-networks/applied-research-conference

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