Women in work
Flexible working would help women juggle caring responsibilities with career progression Reuters

Despite David Cameron's pledge last year to close the gender pay gap in a generation's time, progress in achieving equal pay has stagnated. Legislation aimed to ensure a woman doing the same job at the same skill level as a male counterpart has been in place in the UK for more than 45 years, but it has failed. The pay gap still exists, currently standing at 19.2% across all full-time and part-time employment.

Archaic attitudes towards flexible working is one of the key reasons why the gender pay gap is so enduring. Technological advances allow us to be better connected than ever before when not physically together, but it is still expected that full-time, well-paid jobs require women to work in an office from 9am to 5pm. For many women who juggle work with caring responsibilities, this expectation is simply impossible to fulfil.

Regardless of frequent calls for widely available, flexible working practices, they are still seen as a luxury bestowed on women who take time to start a family. In reality, however, without well-paid and secure part-time work, compressed hours, job shares and the ability to work from home, women are trapped in lower-paid jobs in feminised industries that do not make the most of their skills, or they are excluded from the workplace entirely. Without flexibility 'by default' – as MPs have called for in a report released on Tuesday (22 March 2016) – women who choose to have children will continue to pay the price of the motherhood penalty.

The sad truth is that having children is a death-knell for women's careers. A study by the Chartered Management Institute released in December 2015 found women who return to work after taking maternity leave endure both lower pay and fewer promotions for decades. The research showed the gender pay gap increased with age. Women aged over the age of 40 are most affected by the disparity in pay, particularly those aged between 50 and 59 years old who are paid, on average, around 27% less than men.

The answer is a no-brainer. Flexible working practices allow women with caring responsibilities to take up jobs more easily, and lessen the likelihood that women will experience a knock to their position and pay when they have children – a fundamental factor in the gender pay gap.

Pregnant woman
Without flexible and secure work, women pay the price of motherhood penalty iStock

Since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, more than 800,000 women have moved into lower-paid and insecure jobs – many of them part-time. While this has boosted female employment, it has also seen major growth in female under-employment, with women taking jobs that do not make the most of their skills, their experience or qualifications.

With part-time work concentrated in low-skill sectors, women are forced to endure lower pay with reduced career opportunities in 'highly feminised sectors' such as care, retail or cleaning. According to the report by the Women and Equalities Select Committee, just 6% of jobs currently being advertised as flexible are "well paid" – meaning they have salaries of £20,000 or more. It also found that 59% of minimum wage jobs are held by women.

And while today's report states flexible working should be across the board unless there is a strong business case for it not to be, the case for flexible working is surely stronger. The under-utilisation of women's skills costs the UK economy between 1.3% and 2% of GDP annually, which works out at approximately £35bn, according to government statistics. Flexible working not only benefits women, but the integration of their skills into the workforce benefits the economy, too.

In order to end the motherhood penalty, and close the gender pay gap, we need a scheme to help women back into work after having children and better pay in sectors that are predominantly held by women. We also need non-transferable, well-paid leave for fathers and second parents, to encourage sharing caring responsibilities and dispel the longstanding myth that men are not caregivers.

"Flexibility by default could be a game changer because it will require employers to start with a different assumption and result in more jobs being advertised as flexible jobs," Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society. "It will open up part-time and flexible jobs in senior roles, which will particularly help mothers and normalise flexibility in the workplace, which will help dads and other carers, too.

"Seven in 10 parents look for flexibility when they are looking for work but just six percent of jobs are currently advertised as flexible. There is a lot more that could be done here."