From high childcare costs to minimum parental leave, are working mothers being squeezed out of employment?
In Ireland and elsewhere, a lot of work has been done towards facilitating working parents in one way or another, be it statutory paternity leave or the recent Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017.
But one of the biggest problems still facing working parents is the astronomical cost of childcare, and new research shows how these costs are directly linked to lower employment for mothers.
The new research published today (4 September) by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Pobal has found that mothers who face high childcare costs work fewer hours.
The costs of childcare are frequently referred to as a barrier to maternal employment. However, there are relatively few systematic analyses of the real costs for families or of how these costs directly influence employment outcomes for mothers.
This new report found that mothers with higher childcare costs when their kid is three years old tended to work fewer hours when their child was aged five.
Helen Russell, co-author of the report, said the findings show that 10pc higher childcare costs were associated with 30 minutes fewer paid work by mothers per week.
The study also found that parents with one three-year-old child typically spent about 12pc of their disposable income on childcare. However, this figure rose to 16pc for single parents and 20pc for those lower-income households.
Looking further afield, the report shows that Ireland has one of the highest childcare costs globally, coming in third behind the UK and the US for net cost of full-time childcare for parents. In fact, Ireland sneaks into second place when it comes to the net cost of full-time childcare for lone parents.
The report also highlights how mothers’ employment changes over the course of their young children’s lives. There is a considerable fluidity in mothers’ employment in the early years after the birth of a child. For example, between when the child is three and five, 9pc of women entered employment, 7pc left and 9pc changed between full- and part-time hours.
Furthermore, almost half of women changed the number of hours they worked between these ages for the child. The report said that simply dividing women into those who are stay-at-home mothers and those who are full-time working mothers does not do justice to the range of experiences actually found.
What can be done?
Pobal’s Ela Hogan said that the high costs of childcare have been widely recognised as a significant barrier to women in the workforce.
“This report not only provides a supporting evidence on this, but also points out that this barrier is even more profound for lone parents and low-income families.”
Some work has already been done to help working parents, including plans to roll out a year of paid family leave to be taken within the first year of a child’s life.
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Dr Katherine Zappone, TD, responded to the findings saying that since 2016, investment has increased by more than 80pc with 200,000 children registered in the last 12 months in various Government-supported schemes. However, she added that “more must be done”.
Even before childcare costs become an issue for someone, there is still a lot of work to be done in the parental leave space.
While Ireland isn’t the worst in terms of maternity leave, it’s by no means generous. After all, maternity leave is not required to be paid and the State-provided maternity benefit is €235. In comparison, Sweden offers 480 days of paid family leave, with new parents entitled to nearly 80pc of their salaries.
Meanwhile, the US is widely criticised for its minimal maternity benefits, with as little as 13pc of private sector workers in the US having access to paid parental leave. However, things are changing here, too.
In a landmark move last week, Microsoft announced that it will ensure its US suppliers provide their employees who handle Microsoft’s work with paid parental leave.
Earlier this year, we also looked at the importance of how female employees are treated post-maternity leave when they do return to work.
A study from Dublin City University identified the best things employers can do for their female employees after maternity leave. Unsurprisingly, the study found that when maternity leave was viewed as a major disruption, negative experiences were more common.
The research also identified key practices employers and HR professionals can put in place to ensure that women who return to work post-maternity leave have a positive experience.