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Joeli Brearley: The motherhood penalty is crippling women – and we've had enough

march of the mummies protest in london
How the motherhood penalty is crippling womenAnadolu Agency - Getty Images

If you want proof of how little this country cares about gender equality then look at the way in which mothers and pregnant women are mistreated in the UK. I’m talking about the motherhood penalty, a term coined by sociologists to describe the systematic disadvantages that mothers face in the workplace compared to their childless counterparts in terms of pay, perceived competence and benefits. Really, it’s the gender pay gap, which barely exists until children come into the picture, then it widens and continues to widen from that point onwards. Childcare is now so cripplingly expensive, and in increasingly short supply, that women simply can’t afford to work, or are having to reduce their hours. Unless this issue is fixed, women will be dragged back to the kitchen sink.

I first launched Pregnant Then Screwed, a charity dedicated to ending the motherhood penalty, in 2015 after experiencing pregnancy discrimination first-hand. I told my employer at the children’s charity I worked at that I was pregnant. The next day they sacked me by voicemail. As a middle-class white woman, it was my first real experience of inequality because of my biology and it felt like a spade in the face. I found myself unemployed with a mortgage to pay; then I was told that the baby was in jeopardy. He could arrive at any moment and if he did, he’d probably die. In a matter of days I had lost my career, my independence and my income; the only thing I felt I was good for was as a vessel for this growing foetus and I wasn’t even doing that very well. I felt like I was failing at everything. What happened radicalised me and changed the way I viewed the world. It all worked out in the end: my baby is now a happy, healthy nine-year-old, and my work blossomed into something far better. But even with all that, the experience ate away at me and I couldn’t let it go. As I started meeting more mothers, I realised that so many women had similar experiences of discrimination and, to me, the solutions seemed obvious. That’s how Pregnant Then Screwed was born.

march of the mummies london
The March of the Mummies protest organised by Pregnant Then Screwed in October, 2022Mark Kerrison - Getty Images

In the last three years, the situation for mothers has drastically worsened because costs are increasing, wages have stagnated and childcare is on the brink of collapse because it’s so underfunded. Those who work in childcare, usually young women, are paid a minimum wage for doing this really important, valuable and difficult work. Since 2015, 20,000 childcare providers have closed, and 5,400 have been in the last year. Many parents have to sign up to a nursery before their child is even born. If you do manage to find one, it costs so much that even middle-income families are now struggling. The average cost of a full-time nursery place for a two-year-old is just under £14,000 a year in the UK, according to the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) – the second most expensive in the world.

The impact of all this? More and more women leaving the labour market, many of whom desperately want to work but simply can’t afford to. Now, we know that the UK has a labour shortage – 'economic inactivity', as the government calls it – and a shrinking workforce means lower growth and higher interest rates. Surely we should stop blocking the women who want full- or part-time work with an infrastructure that allows them to. It’s wilful ignorance not to see the link between affordable, quality childcare and a happy, boosted economy. If we could create a system where women are able to work the hours they want to, data suggests it would be a benefit of £28 billion to the economy. I find it maddening that we’re so comfortable that there is a free education system from the age of five, but below that age – which we know is a critical and foundational period in a child’s development – we simply don’t care. It’s also about reducing child poverty. Children are not poor by themselves, they’re poor because their mothers are poor. If we’re preventing women from accessing the systems that make them economically independent, it not only impacts them but their children, too.

joeli brearley
Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then ScrewedHearst Owned

Of course, the other scenario is to stop having children. Perhaps one day procreation will become too expensive to consider and I will finally be able to appease the male social media users who ask why they should pay for my 'lifestyle choice'. Perhaps I don’t want to pay for their healthcare or pension, but this is how a society works – we support each other for the best outcome for everyone. And frankly, the human race will disappear if we don’t have any more children, so that isn’t realistically an option. All we’re asking for is somewhere affordable to leave our kids so that they can access the education they deserve and we can use our skills and go back to work.

For me, the question isn’t whether we can afford to invest in good quality childcare for all children. It’s whether we can afford not to. If the chancellor wants the 'economically inactive' back to work, then we need the infrastructure to enable us to have both children and a career. Ultimately, I’d like to see a model akin to the Australian version, which offers subsidies based on quality, so childcare providers have to prove that they’re giving a good service in order to secure money from the government. Those subsidies are passed down to parents.

It gives me hope that women are furious, that they’ve had enough. Once you have furious, motivated women behind a cause, we know from history that things change. There are bills going through that are positive – the recent Neo Natal Care Leave Bill states that if you have a baby in a Neo Natal Care unit, you will soon be entitled to 12 weeks extra leave and pay. The revised Redundancy Protections Bill means that pregnant women will have more protection against redundancy. None of it is enough, but it’s progress. The noise of childcare reform will be deafening by the next election, and there will be radical change. It bodes well for the future.

As told to Ella Alexander.

The Motherhood Penalty: How To Stop Motherhood Being The Kiss of Death For Your Career by Joeli Brearley is available to buy now.

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