Features

Mothers in the workplace – changing times

Jonathan Bruck , 12 Jul 2011

mother with child

Many of our employment laws since 1996 have focused on protecting the rights of working mothers and ensuring that working mothers are given every opportunity to enjoy a healthy work/family life balance.

A recently published survey has provided an interesting insight into how the nature of female workforce has changed during that period. The survey, which was published by the Office for National Statistics, could serve as a useful indicator as to how employment law may have affected the numbers of women in the workplace.

One of the principal findings of the survey was that in the last 15 years the proportion of working women who are also mothers, has grown considerably. The survey reveals that In 1996, there was a 5.8 percent difference in the number of women with and those without children; but by the final quarter of 2010 though, this had reduced to just 0.8 percent.

The survey offers a number of plausible explanations for this trend, including the following:

  • Ageing population. Employment rates for mothers peak in the age group 35 to 49 and because of an ageing population, this age group made up a higher percentage of all mothers in the UK in 2010 compared with 1996.
  • Older mothers. Women have been choosing to have their children later in life and there are also more mothers with pre-school children aged 35 to 49 in 2010 compared to 1996.
  • Recession. Employment for women without children has fallen since the onset of the recession, driven mainly by a fall in employment for those aged 16 to 24.

However, the survey makes only passing reference to the simple fact that, since 1996 more mothers have decided to work. It is likely that employment law developments since that date have contributed to this trend.

The law governing rights for working mothers has come along way in the last 40 years. However, the pace of change in the law has increased dramatically. In fact, since 1996, there have been three acts of parliament and three statutory instruments that have given working mothers additional rights and protection.

These rights have included:

  • protecting the health and safety of pregnant employees, new mothers and those who are breastfeeding.
  • providing employees with 52 weeks' statutory maternity leave (regardless of their length of service);
  • extending statutory maternity pay to 39 weeks for those who qualify;
  • provisions for reasonable contact between employer and employee during maternity leave and the opportunity to work for up to ten "keeping in touch" (KIT) days during maternity leave without bringing that leave to an end;
  • rights in relation to pregnancy and maternity leave (for example, time off for antenatal care and protection from dismissal).

There can be little doubt that this has led to a situation where, for women in the workplace, motherhood is now less of a natural barrier to a lengthy career, than it used to be.

One of the other findings of the survey is that the percentage of women working part time has remained stable over the last fifteen years. This is rather surprising, given the increase in rights for working mothers to apply for flexible working, during the same period.

In fact, the statistics show that the increase in number of working mothers since 1996, has been largely driven by an increase in mothers working full rather than part time.

This could be an indicator that the finances of a typical family household do not allow for part time working. Alternatively, it could suggest slow progress amongst employers in the development of a flexible working culture in this country.

The last 15 years has certainly been a period where women's role in the workplace has been strengthened. However, behind the statistics, there will always be room for continued progress.

Jonathan Bruck, senior solicitor, IBB Solicitors

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