Last reviewed 22 March 2021

Women are much more likely than men to give up paid work, or to cut their hours, after childbirth even when they earn more than their partner, according to research carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). In its report, The Careers and Time Use of Mothers and Fathers available at https://www.ifs.org.uk/inequality/the-careers-and-time-use-of-mothers-and-fathers, the IFS investigated the hypothesis that heterosexual couples tend to prioritise men’s paid work, given that men already have slightly higher hourly wages than women before becoming parents.

“This is an important hypothesis,” the IFS said. “If true, it would imply that the focus for addressing gender gaps in pay should lie largely outside of what happens when people have children — since differences in career trajectories at that point would effectively only be the result of (smaller) differences that were already present beforehand.”

However, the Institute found that women are always more likely to stop working after parenthood, regardless of whether or not they were the highest earner.

Even in families where the mother had a higher wage than the father before the first child arrived, therefore, fathers’ working patterns are largely unaffected by childbirth whereas mothers reduce their hours of paid work substantially.

“We supplement this evidence with recent evidence from the Covid-19 crisis,” the IFS said, “which leads to a similar conclusion: additional childcare needs were met disproportionately by mothers, regardless of whether the mother earned more than the father before the crisis.”

In fact, the average employment and hours of work of men barely change after they become fathers, while the employment of women falls sharply from above 90% to below 75% after childbirth and, amongst those who remain in paid work, hours of work fall from around 40 to less than 30.

The report highlights that the figures are even more striking for uninterrupted working time, which is likely a better measure of time in productive work when that activity is done from home while dividing the space with young children and having to care for them.

No matter who was better paid before the lockdown, the IFS notes, mothers always did less uninterrupted working time during the confinement period.

Lower-paid mothers did double the amount of housework and 41% more childcare than higher-paid fathers, while higher-paid mothers did 6% more housework and 22% more childcare than lower-paid fathers.

Comment by Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula

As hybrid working becomes more and more popular amongst businesses, we may see an increase in women requesting less traditional methods of working so they are more likely to retain their jobs — it may even become popular amongst father too.

That said, this research may encourage employers to seek ways to retain their staff when they become parents — we may even see an increase in shared parental leave take-up.