Returning to work after having a child: how families make decisions
20 Aug 2018
Becci Newton, IES Associate Director
The publication of gender pay gap data has confirmed the disparities between the pay rates of men and women. The evident gaps are the result of a range of factors including the different jobs performed by men and women as well as the effect of taking time out of work to have children, which has a disproportionate effect on women’s pay rates.
These issues aside, there are pay and labour market effects of having children that impact on women’s labour market outcomes; the Women and Equalities Select Committee identified that caring responsibilities remain a significant barrier to women’s pay and progression opportunities and as long as women take disproportionate responsibility for childcare, pay differentials will persist. Hence the committee stressed that sharing childcare between mothers and fathers was crucial to reducing the gender pay gap.
Policy has sought to respond to this problem and support to enable families to share care responsibilities has been introduced and incrementally improved. This includes the extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees (after 26 weeks' service); tax-free childcare; and free early education places for three to four year olds (Government Equalities Office, 2015). Shared Parental Leave (SPL) is designed to give parents more flexibility and choice, although has yet to deliver substantial change.
To understand more about parents’ decisions to return to work, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) commissioned IES to undertake a rapid evidence assessment. The aim was to systematically identify and critically review evidence on how parents in the UK make decisions about both returning to work and child caring responsibilities. Key to this was to explore the distribution of caring roles and responsibilities between parents, the associated gender balance, and the implications of this for creating greater equality between women and men.
A first point to note is that the literature was not highly developed on this theme. The relative roles and expectations of mothers and fathers – and of more diverse family set-ups, such as the decisions of same sex couples – are under explored. Hence, a first finding was that more research is required on this theme.
More broadly, the evidence suggested that the point in time at which parents consider a return to work is influenced by a range of factors, including social attitudes, the age of the child or children, ethnicity, and the availability of maternity pay and maternity leave. While there has been a change in social attitudes relating to mothers as primary care-givers, popular belief is that women should be available to their children in the pre-school phase. There is evidence that these gendered attitudes have a strong influence on decision-making, despite some variation by level of education and socio-economic status. However, even once the youngest child starts school, the prevailing view in society remains that women should work part-time as opposed to full-time.
A child’s age, particularly in the case of low- income parents, is a significant influencing factor for when (or if) a parent returns to work. While this effect has diminished over time, parents vary in their views on the optimum age at which to return: whether this is at the commencement of primary or secondary school, or the point at which a child can attend nursery for free. Low pay, lack of job/work flexibility and child-associated factors – including health or behavioural problems – all negatively affect the decision on whether to return to work.
The availability and extent of parental leave is another important factor. Notably, longer duration of paid maternity leave increases the probability of mothers remaining at home during the first year of their child’s life, while also increasing the likelihood of women returning to work within a couple of months following the cessation of this pay. Overall, the provision of support by employers, including policies such as enhanced parental leave rights, increases the likelihood of a parent returning to the same employer.
The reasons why parents return to work are also complex. These include factors that are predominantly financial with, for example, mothers who have high-earning partners being less likely to return to work for financial reasons. Opportunities for those on lower family incomes vary and the quality and attractiveness of the job – in terms of both pay and experience – have a greater effect. There are also some mothers who return to work sooner than they want to, for example, out of fear of either losing their jobs or missing out on promotion opportunities. Other, more positive reasons, include finding work interesting, meaningful and providing aspects of personal identity, enjoyment, and social contacts outside parenting.
Where parents return to work, there is a strong likelihood of returning to the same employer, though not necessarily to the same role. Once returned, mothers are less likely to be promoted to senior roles than fathers; new mothers are most likely to move from full-time to part-time work compared with other groups of women, and new mothers often cite part-time work as a means of maintaining a ‘balance’ between work and childcare. Overall, career breaks appear to be more detrimental to women than men. These findings are crucial to understanding not only how the pay gap emerges but also how it evolves and becomes entrenched.
Having a child means many complex decisions have to be made by parents, and mapping the choice architecture helps clarify this complexity and promote understanding of the nature of factors affecting return to work decisions amongst parents. Using the COM-B framework (Capability, Opportunity, Motivation and Behaviour) the team at IES brought together a number of relevant factors to understand how these interact to drive return to work behaviour amongst parents (Figure 1). The three components affecting behaviour are multi-faceted and different aspects of the same dimension may influence decision-making either positively or negatively. For example, looking at the dimension of opportunity, the availability of childcare may be received positively if it matches with the parents’ working hours. However, the same childcare could be perceived negatively if it is provided in a setting that the parent does not view as satisfactory, or takes up a significant amount of their hourly income from work. In addition, some elements of a dimension may override others in decision-making. In the example above, the parent could decide that the marginal rate of pay after taking into account childcare and travel costs is too low and outweighs the potential benefits of returning to work.
The review was highly interesting, pushing forward both our own and GEO’s understanding of the factors that combine to lead to return to work decisions and, in some cases, underpin the gender pay gap. However, there is much more to learn in this area. There is a need for ongoing monitoring of SPL to understand the effect it may have. Continued work to understand how social attitudes to parenting roles develop would be valuable, particularly on the acceptability of this becoming more of a shared responsibility. The support offered by employers is clearly an important influence on the return to work decision. It is therefore important to improve our understanding of what employers can and will offer to parents to support their return, and why, in order for policy to set the conditions in place to allow for more equal decisions to be made about the return to work.
 House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee (2016), Gender Pay Gap, Second Report of Session 2015-2016, House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee
 GEO (2015), Closing the Gender Pay Gap – Government Consultation, Government Equalities Office
 Newton B, Tamkin P, Gloster R, Cox A, Everett C, Cotton J (2018), Rapid evidence assessment: parents' decisions about returning to work and child caring responsibilities: Research review, Department for Education (DfE)
 IES has developed a track record in the application of behavioural insights models, for example see: Gloster R, Bertram C, Buzzeo J, Fletcher L, Tassinari A, Cox A, Vlaev I (2017), Using behavioural insights to examine benefit claimants’ approaches to training opportunities, Research Report 723, Department for Education and Fell D, Giorgi S (2016), ORGANISER: A behavioural approach for influencing organisations, Cabinet Office
 Michie S, Van Stralen M, West R (2011), ‘The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions’, Implementation Science, Vol. 6, No. 42