Research shows that mothers who have a higher salary within the household pre-childbirth are still more frequently leaving the workplace after having a child, in comparison to their male partners.

A new analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that women who earn more than their male partner are still more likely to leave their paid employment or cut their hours after childbirth.

According to research cited, gender pay gaps are usually driven by pre-existing gaps in earnings within opposite-gender couples – since men already earn more than women, on average, even before they have children – which then drives decisions around who reduces paid work once children are born.

However, this new research shows that mothers are still more likely to reduce paid work in some form even when she has the higher rate of pay which is the case for almost two-fifths of heterosexual couples (38 per cent).

In this scenario, mothers who earn a higher salary are four times more likely (13 per cent) than their male partner (3 per cent) to leave the workforce after having children.

In addition, when women do choose to stay in the workforce after giving birth, their working hours fall by over a quarter (26 per cent). The research finds that there is little to no reduction in the number of paid hours that men work after having a child – including when they earn less than their female partner.

The report ultimately highlights that childbirth greatly impacts the evolution of gender differences in careers over the life cycle. Women’s employment rates jump sharply down from about 90 per cent to 75 per cent, and average weekly hours of work for those still in paid work fall from around 40 to less than 30.

In cases where women earn less than their male partners prior to giving birth, mothers’ employment rates for paid work falls by 22 per cent whilst the hours of paid work falls by a third (33 per cent).

Alison Andrew, a Senior Research Economist at IFS and an author of the report, said:

The gendered roles of men and women in paid work and childcare after heterosexual couples start families play a crucial part in the development of the gender pay gap, and gender differences in careers more generally.

How these parents divide up paid work and childcare cannot be straightforwardly explained by (smaller) pre-existing differences in their career trajectories. Even where the mother was the main earner before having a child, she is much more likely to give up work or reduce her hours after becoming a parent than is the father.

So the roots of these gender differences cannot all be traced back to which parent was in the better position, career-wise, to be the primary breadwinner. Attempts to understand and address gender pay gaps must consider the role of social norms and maternity and paternity policies – and the links between the two – in driving men’s and women’s roles after childbirth.


*This research was obtained from an IFS report entitled “The Careers and Time Use of Mothers and Fathers” which analyses why the number of women in paid employment falls after giving birth.