On the surface Government data demonstrates a small improvement in female employment, standing at 71.8%. This is the highest percentage since records began in 1971. However, on closer examination there are still significant issues for mothers in the job market. Just 64% of mothers with a youngest dependent child under 4 are in employment. This is significantly lower than the UK average employment rate of 76.1% and the UK average for fathers of children the same age, which is 93%. Mothers with a youngest dependent child aged 3-4 years of age have the lowest employment rate of all adults.
Taking a career break can mean it’s difficult to re-enter the job market. 34% of our research respondents have been unemployed for 10 years or more and 28% have been unemployed for 5-9 years.
This is not explained by mothers simply choosing to stay at home to raise a family. 82.2% of mothers with children under 2 stated they were economically inactive because they were looking after the family or home but this figure drops as their children get older and sits at just 44.5% of inactive mothers whose youngest child was 16-18. The ONS states that 1.1m mothers want to work.
The ONS data on families and the labour market doesn’t capture length of time out of the workplace but we included this question in our research.
35% of mothers surveyed had been out of work for 10 years or more. 30% had been out of work for 5-9 years. Just 9% had been out of work for less than a year and 10% had been out of work for 1-2 years.
There is a common misconception that the reason mothers are economically inactive is because they want to be Stay At Home Mothers, but is this true?
Unemployment versus economic inactivity
Understanding the true picture is challenging because of the way we define unemployment versus inactivity.
Unemployment measures people without a job that have been actively seeking work within the last 4 weeks and are available to start work in the next 2 weeks.
Economic inactivity measures people without a job that do not meet the definition of unemployment because they have not been seeking work within the last 4 weeks and/or they are unable to start work within the next 2 weeks.
These two distinct states paint a murky picture for mothers. Mothers find it difficult to make major life decisions in a short time-frame due to the complex juggle of parenting, for example, it’s extremely challenging to secure childcare places at short notice. So the current definition of unemployment could be missing many mothers that really want to work but simply can’t turn things around within the 2-week time frame stated.
There has been much focus on flexible working as a solution to maternal unemployment in recent years. While there is no denying that this is an important piece of the puzzle, offering more flexible working isn’t a cure-all. Skills and knowledge dating while on a career break is significantly impacting women’s ability to reenter the world of work and is negatively affecting their careers overall.
Workers unable to find employment because they lack the necessary skills is a phenomenon known as structural unemployment.
Structural unemployment occurs when workers lack the necessary skills to find employment or live too far from regions where jobs are available and are unable to move closer. Structural unemployment is a bigger challenge in today’s world due to the fast-changing nature of the economy. It’s particularly exacerbated by the high rate of technological obsolescence and increased competition of today’s digital, globalised world.
Little has been done to explore the link between maternal unemployment and structural unemployment. Digital Mums are calling on the Government Equalities Office to conduct a wider scale examination of this issue, pulling together best practices from around the world to explore innovative solutions.
52% of mothers worry about their skills/knowledge becoming dated while on a career break. This rises to 72% of mothers in London.
Millennial mums expressed the strongest concern about outdated skills, double that of mums aged 40-51.
Just over 1 in 4 mothers stated that concern around outdated skills/knowledge put them off applying for a job. This figure rises to 1 in 2 mothers in London.
Our research shows that there are good grounds for them to be worried. 21% of mothers surveyed stated that outdated skills/knowledge had stopped them getting a job they had applied for. This rises to almost half of mothers in London (49%).
Considering competition for roles is tough this isn’t surprising. On average employers received a median of 24 applicants for the last low-skilled vacancy they tried to fill compared with 19 applicants for the last medium-skilled vacancy and 8 applicants for the last high-skilled vacancy they sought to fill.
Returning to low-skilled jobs
It is well documented that mothers end up in more junior and lower-skilled roles when they return to work after a career break. How much of this is driven by confidence and skills?
A desire for flexibility is a key driver of this return into more junior roles. Our 2017 research showed that 64% of mothers felt that they had compromised their skills and experience to find a flexible job that fitted around childcare. Our new research shows the biggest driver is the need for flexible working. This is backed up by extensive evidence elsewhere.
However, 1 in 5 mothers cited a lack of up to date skills as a factor in taking a more junior role, which rises to 1 in 4 for 18-30-year-olds. 23% stated that confidence was an issue.
Flexible working is clearly not a complete solution. Supporting mothers to build up to date skills and knowledge is an essential piece of the puzzle.
Given there are 3 x as many applicants for a low-skilled role than a high-skilled role, the reality is that they are facing stiffer competition for low-skilled roles. Therefore, it’s no surprise that mothers worry that outdated skills and knowledge are holding them back and are put off applying for roles, or that employers are turning them down when they do apply.
Clearly, skills and the confidence that can be delivered from upskilling is a significant and largely ignored piece of the puzzle. There is a lack of research exploring this issue, with assumptions made that the need for flexible working is the sole driver to women working part-time.
Mothers working in part-time, lower-skilled jobs is a major contributor to the gender pay gap. We need to do more to understand to what extent mothers are working in part-time, low skilled roles because low confidence and outdated skills/knowledge mean they struggle to find higher-skilled and better-paid roles.
While on my maternity leave I started to feel behind digitally and felt a bit out of my depth and so I went in search of a way to increase my knowledge.
Why we need to get mothers back into 'good work'
Being unemployed is bad for you. There is clear evidence that unemployment is detrimental to both physical and mental health and is associated with an increased risk of mortality and morbidity, including long-term health conditions, cardiovascular disease, poor mental health and suicide.
Our survey shows that almost half of the mothers that rated their life satisfaction as just 1 out of 5 are out of work, showing a clear correlation between life satisfaction and work.
Conversely, being employed is good for you as long as that work is defined as ‘good work’ (safe, secure work with good working hours and conditions, supportive management and opportunities to develop). Good work improves health and wellbeing across people’s lives and protects against social exclusion and improves quality of life across the board. It does this through the provision of income, social interaction, a role and a sense of identity and purpose.
The benefits to society and the economy of getting people back into work are also well evidenced.
Based on people returning to employment, there is, per person, a £3,500 financial gain to the individual, £12,000 savings to national government via the exchequer and an overall gain to society of £23,100.
Investing in training opportunities to support mothers back into the workplace will deliver a significant return on investment
For every person returning to employment there is a total net gain of £35,100. 21% of our respondents were turned down for a role they applied for due to outdated skills or knowledge.
If we take the ONS figure that 1.1m mothers are out of work but want to return to work this equates to 231,000 mothers that failed to return to employment because of outdated skills or knowledge.
If they had been accepted into these roles and got back into the workplace the potential net gain to the UK would be £35,100 for each of the 231,000 mothers, which equates to a staggering £8.1bn.
This is purely the net gain from supporting out of work mothers into jobs. More could be gained from supporting mothers that have re-entered the job market but are stuck in low-paid roles because they struggled to get back into work at the same level.
This blog is an extract from our new report “Locked out of Learning” exploring why mothers aren’t learning and how this is impacting their careers.
100 years ago this month the Ministry of Reconstruction’s adult education committee published its Final Report on Adult Education. This report argued for the importance of adult education for the nation’s welfare and security and laid the foundations for adult education in the UK for decades to come. 100 years on we have commissioned research to examine the impact motherhood has on female careers and employment levels, with a focus on the potential of adult learning as a solution to support mothers into rewarding work.
Over the next week will be sharing the report, infographics and stories from women that bring life to our key findings as well as our recommendations for Government, employers and other learning providers.
To access a copy of our full report, click here.
To review the Executive Summary, click here.