Media Briefings

Motherhood: The Impact On Women’s Hours Of Work

  • Published Date: February 2008

Before the arrival of children, more than four out of five (85%) working women in
Britain are in full-time employment, working more than 30 hours a week. But once
they become mothers, the proportion is much lower: only a third (34%) of working
mothers with pre-school children are employed full-time, and only 41% of working
mothers with a youngest child of school age.
These are among the findings of new research by Dr Gillian Paull, published in the
February 2008 issue of The Economic Journal. In contrast, the study finds that the
proportion of men working full-time is slightly greater for those with children: 91% of
working men are employed full-time prior to children, while 96% of working fathers
with a pre-school child and 97% of working fathers with a youngest child of school
age are employed full-time.
Dr Paull analyses data from approximately 84,000 interviews with 18,000 men and
women from the first 14 waves of the British Household Panel Survey, a nationally
representative sample of 5,500 households interviewed every year since 1991. Her
research shows that:
• Despite policy innovations and cultural changes that have led to substantial
changes in women’s role in the labour market in Britain, working women are
still much more likely than men to be working part-time – 30 hours or fewer
each week – rather than full-time – 31 or more hours a week.
• The birth of the first child is the single most important event moving women to
part-time work. Just prior to the first birth, over 90% of working women spend
31 or more hours a week at work. A year after the first birth, only 40% are in
full-time employment.
• There is no marked return to working full-time for mothers as their first child
gets older. Indeed, the movement towards shorter hours continues throughout
the decade following the first birth with the proportion of working mothers
employed full-time declining to just over 30%.
• Women who return to work when their youngest child starts compulsory
schooling at age four or five are relatively more likely than those returning at
other times to take up part-time work rather than full-time work.
• The impact of children on women’s work hours persists even after the children
have grown up and left home. Only 58% of working women who no longer
have dependent children living at home are employed full-time, compared to
96% of their male counterparts.
• Although children have little impact on men’s work hours, there is some
adjustment in the balance of work hours within couples following births and
when the youngest child starts compulsory schooling. Average work hours for
men tend to adjust in the opposite direction to their female partner’s hours at
these times, while the hours tend to move in the same direction during
other periods.
The link between women’s work hours and family formation and development is
highly pertinent to the debate on the desirability of the part-time work for women and
whether policy measures should encourage women to work longer hours.
Condemnation for the prevalence of shorter hours is often expressed in the ‘parttime
pay penalty’ and the notion that part-time work consists of dead-end jobs in
poorly paid occupations, perpetuates the weaker position of women in
employment positions.
On the other hand, it has been argued that part-time work is an optimal response to
the constraints faced by women, with flexibility in hours and pay allowing women to
participate in formal paid work on the conditions that they want.
Notes for editors: ‘Children and Women’s Hours of Work’ by Gillian Paull is
published in the February 2008 issue of The Economic Journal.
Gillian Paull is a research associate of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
For further information: contact Gillian Paull on 020-8241-2895 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768-661095 (email: