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16 February 2021

How does parenthood affect careers and working lives?

Rose Cook and Laura Jones

Our new study will look at the relationship between parenthood and job quality

Woman in office

For many of us work is a central part of our lives, and so the quality of our jobs can play an important role in impacting our health and wellbeing. Our new two-year research study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, will look at the relationship between parenthood and job quality, including by charting any changes that occur for men and women when they become parents.

Job quality is not just how well-paid we are, but refers to other important aspects of work such as job security, progression prospects and autonomy over what we do and when we do it. It has emerged as an important issue as post-recession changes in the labour market have led to increasing polarisation between well-paid, high-skilled jobs, and low-wage, insecure “Uber-ised” jobs, a gulf that has become even wider during the pandemic.

In response to these developments there has been a public and policy debate focused on the idea of “good work”, most notably through the through the 2017 Taylor Review, which concluded that: “The Government must place equal importance on the quality of work as it does on the quantity”.

Why would we think that parenthood and job quality might be linked? Our jobs change across our working lives and are affected by life events. For a long time researchers have known that there is a “motherhood penalty” in income – a wage penalty associated with becoming a mother, which is a major component of the gender pay gap. There is thought to be a corresponding “fatherhood bonus”, but less is known about whether or how parenthood affects other aspects of job quality. We think that focusing on income alone tells a limited story about the effect of parenthood on men and women’s working lives.

One theory is that part of the reason that women, and mothers in particular, earn less is because they “trade off” income in return for “mother-friendly” jobs characterised by low pay and flexibility. However, the evidence for this theory is pretty thin. In fact, some studies show that in addition to being low paid, women also work in jobs that have fewer benefits and are over-represented in the worst-quality jobs. What we are unable to tell from existing research, however, is to what extent these differences are linked to parenthood. As fathers play an increasing role in caregiving, it is equally important to understand whether fathers experience any job-quality shifts.

What makes this ever more important is a growing awareness of the links between job quality and mental health. While for a long time it was thought that “any job is better than no job”, there is now some evidence to suggest that poor-quality jobs can be as bad, or even worse, for health and wellbeing than unemployment. For families this can have a two-tier impact as poor-quality work is linked to behavioural difficulties and distress in children, mediated by both mothers’ and fathers’ wellbeing.

Most of our project will involve analysing nationally representative survey datasets, but an important element will involve working in partnership with the charity Working Families to conduct focus groups with diverse groups of working parents. These will explore participants’ views on what makes a “good job”, particularly in the context of Covid-19, and whether the disruption the pandemic has brought to working lives has affected preferences around work.

By understanding the relationship between parenthood and job quality, our ultimate goal is to develop recommendations for policymakers, employers, and individuals to make sure high-quality jobs are widely accessible to all. This may include ways to mitigate unequal impacts of parenthood on job quality for mothers and fathers, thus tackling gender inequalities, as well as addressing any negative impacts of jobs on families wellbeing, such as by designing jobs that fit better with family priorities.

Dr Rose Cook is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, King’s College London.

Laura Jones is a Research Associate at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, King’s College London.