Motherhood And Part-Time Work Move Women Down The Career Ladder

The majority of new mothers who remain in work switch to part-time employment. But since part-time professional jobs are few and far between, this often leads to a significant loss of career status and pay – ''occupational downgrading'' – for many mothers, wasting the talents of Britain''s most highly qualified women.

These are the central findings of new research by Drs Sara Connolly and Mary Gregory, published in the February 2008 issue of The Economic Journal. The study finds that:

  • Women managers are worst affected by occupational downgrading when they become mothers and switch to part-time employment. One in three women corporate managers move down the occupational ladder, two-thirds taking clerical positions and the remaining third a range of other lower-skill jobs.
  • Women managers of shops, salons and restaurants are even worse affected. Almost half give up their managerial responsibilities to become sales assistants, hairdressers and similar.
  • Teaching and nursing are the most favourable careers in supporting moves to part-time work while continuing in the profession. But even there, nearly one in ten quit for lower-skill jobs.
  • More than one in five women from other professional occupations downgrade. Almost half of women professionals who downgrade move into jobs where the average employee lacks A-levels, leaving three years or more of high-level education and training underused.

The authors comment:

''From corporate manager to office worker. From teacher to classroom assistant. From nurse to care assistant. These are occupational trajectories for some of Britain''s most highly qualified women when they switch to parttime work and childcare.''

''This loss of career status with part-time work is a stark failure among otherwise encouraging trends for women''s advancement. Girls and young women are outperforming males at all educational levels. They are moving into an expanding range of occupations, and building successful careers. The gender pay gap is narrowing.''

''But for many all this comes to an abrupt halt when childcare claims part of the working week.''

Six million women – 40% of those in work – are in part-time jobs: this includes the majority of mothers. The pay gap between part-time and full-time work has been widening steadily over a number of years. This is because part-time jobs are predominantly found in low-paid occupations.

But many women in these jobs are qualified for, and have previously held, higher level, better-paid jobs. The Equal Opportunities Commission called this the ''hidden brain drain'' of women''s part-time work. The reason for this occupational downgrading is not that mothers want less demanding jobs, but that part-time opportunities in higher-level jobs are restricted.

The best chance of avoiding downgrading is to be able to switch to a reduced hours basis with the current employer. Good part-time opportunities rarely come available on the open market.

The authors add:

''The “one-and-a-half breadwinner” model is not doing well by the more highly qualified among Britain''s mothers. With education and skills acquisition national priorities and work-life balance high on the political agenda, this is a major challenge for policy-makers.''

''Unequal treatment of part-time workers is unlawful, but neither equal pay nor equal opportunities addresses downgrading. The recently introduced right to request flexible working is having very limited impact.''

''At present the low quality of many part-time jobs means that women are paying the price of reconciling work and family. With women going into higher education in large numbers and performing very well, the social value of the current pattern of extensive part-time work by mothers, including in low-level jobs, as the means of reconciling work and family must be questioned.''

''Moving Down: Women''s Part-time Work and Occupational Change in Britain 1991-2001'' by Sara Connolly and Mary Gregory is published in the February 2008 issue of The Economic Journal.