Women’s Choices in the labour market

Pub. Date
05 November, 2010
Pub. Type

Mothers labour market patterns

Three-quarters of mothers return to work within 18 months of maternity. Return is lower after the second child. Return varies with mothers’ characteristics and is more likely the higher the mother’s qualifications, the greater the mother’s training and if the mother has a partner. The period before return is more varied for higher paid.

Employment after maternity often entails reduced hours, including a move to part-time employment, occupational downgrading, reduced hourly pay, and temporary employment.

Labour market withdrawal, occupational downgrading, hours reduction and moves to temporary work also occur when children enter school.

The patterns suggest difficulties combining childcare and paid working, with constraints higher with two children than with one. They also occur in relation to young children’s schooling.


There is very little direct evidence on mothers’ preferences over labour market participation.

‘Preference theory’ has posited that there are three type of women: those committed to work, those committed to family and those in between (adaptive) and that these different types make differing labour market choices. These differing choices result, on average, in mothers performing poorly in the labour market. This approach has been widely criticised for its lack of recognition of individuals having a set of preferences (and not solely a preference over looking after one’s child or working), dismissal of constraints affecting choice and the lack of recognition of ‘choices’ being socially constructed.

Women’s keenness to work does not differ between mothers and non-mothers. Mothers are no keener than fathers to stop working. It appears that fathers face greater constraints to working part-time than do mothers.

Around half of parents (53 percent) saw their own work/care arrangements as governed by necessity rather choice and only 42 percent of women believed it was possible to meet their work/care needs and the needs of their children.


Mothers’ employment is constrained by the lack of availability of high quality full-time childcare. Its lack is particularly a barrier to mothers with children aged under eleven, especially lone mothers, those on lower incomes and to those with more than one child. Schooling introduces major difficulties.

Problems include:

  • availability;
  • hours available; and
  • affordability.

Concerns about quality appear to have declined.

Juggling childcare across a range of providers is a major problem, particularly for lone parents and for mothers without access to informal care.

Childcare constraints affect employment directly (participation, hours of work) and may affect it indirectly (through stress, time demands), particularly the juggling of different provision.

Non-family-friendly working

The UK has a long-hours working culture. This may increase occupational downgrading amongst mothers, as well as reduce participation. For two parent families it may encourage the gender division of paid work/childcare, with fathers working long hours and providing less childcare and mothers working part-time and providing care.

Working outside standard working hours (e.g. evenings, nights and weekends) is widespread amongst parents, particularly fathers.  For some this may be a positive choice, to share childcare (‘shift-parenting’); for others it is a necessity due to childcare difficulties.

The availability of family-friendly policies appears to have a strong influence on whether mothers return after maternity. Flexible working, particularly part-time employment, is widely available. Data exists on the availability of flexible working for existing employees (i.e. whether an employee might move to flexible working), but not on the availability for job applicants. Reduced working hours, flexitime, jobshare are available to around 50 percent of existing employees. A compressed working week and annualised hours are available to around one third and working from home available to around one quarter. However, the types of practice available may not always suit the needs of employees and there is a belief that flexible working is seen by employers as lack of commitment.

The evidence on the availability of flexible practices by occupational level is mixed. However, part-time is concentrated in lower level occupations, constraining choice and resulting in occupational downgrading.

Other factors

The necessity to commute can lead to withdrawal from the labour market for part-time workers. Cost, time and difficulties arranging childcare are all likely to play a part. This may explain the low return to work after maternity of mothers in London.

Partners’ earnings affect the return to work, with mothers less likely to return the higher their partner’s income.

Maternity pay and leave are major influences on the timing of the return to work. Half of women return to work at the end of statutory maternity pay entitlement (26 weeks) and almost all the remainder return by the end of the statutory maximum leave period (52 weeks).  However, there is evidence of a lack of knowledge about entitlements, particularly amongst those in lower level occupations.  

Comparisons across Europe suggest that lengthy statutory leaves are associated with greater labour market participation following leave, although the effect on pay and career prospects are worse.


Fathers appear to be more constrained in their choices than mothers, both in their preference to work and to work part-time. This is likely to be influenced by the social expectations around gender roles, exacerbated by the lack of provision of family-friendly working in at higher occupational levels and in ‘male’ jobs. This is further exacerbated by the gender pay gap and the UK’s long hours culture, which encourage two-parent families to split work and caring along traditional gender lines.

Policy conclusions

To enable parents to choose their preferred childcare/paid work balance requires:

  • increased provision of childcare which takes into account preferred working patterns;
  • flexible working being provided across the spectrum of employment and being seen on a par with full-time working i.e. ending distinctions between full-time and part-time working.