Each year that a woman takes out of the workplace to look after her children cuts 1 per cent off her earnings for the rest of her life, according to research by the Equal Opportunities Commission. A woman who earns �30,000 a year, has a child at 25 and stays at home for a year to look after it would, for example, lose more than �10,000 in earnings by the time she retired, in what the EOC calls a 'scarring' effect.
This fresh evidence of the long-term impact of childcare decisions follows attempts last week by both Michael Howard and Tony Blair to win over working mothers by offering them more generous support.
'Even a small break from employment for children has significant negative associations with wages,' says the report, which was prepared for the EOC by Wendy Olsen from Manchester University and Sylvia Walby from Leeds University. They compared the hourly pay of hundreds of women with different career histories over a 10-year period and analysed which factors influenced their earning power.
The researchers found that returning to part-time work after having children does not boost women's pay. For each year of part-time work, future earnings fall by another 1 per cent, perhaps because women have to move into a lower-paying and more traditionally 'female' sector, to find a part-time job.
And while mothers are at home, or working part-time, other employees are pulling ahead. 'The scarring effect occurs, because for every year you're in full-time employment your wages increase by 2.6 per cent,' explains David Darton, the EOC's strategy director. Since each year out of the workplace or in a part-time job actually reduces women's earnings, the gap continues to widen.
'What is really worrying is that, if you spend 10 years doing a mixture of part-time work and time off, which isn't unusual, then the cumulative effect is quite high: you end up with 40 per cent less earning power then someone who stayed in full-time work,' Darton says.
Differences in lifetime working patterns because of looking after children or other relatives explain up to 14 per cent of the total 'gender pay gap' between men and women, according to the EOC.
In a separate survey, the EOC found that as many as one in three women who worked part-time was not fulfilling her potential: she was in a job which didn't use her skills and experience fully.
'That is a scandalous under-use of resources,' Darton says. 'One area we need to look at is the way employers think about part-time jobs - what's suitable as a part-time job.'
Part-time female workers earn 40 per cent less per hour than their full-time male counterparts: a gap that has barely narrowed over the past 30 years. The EOC hopes that by understanding the factors that influence earnings, including childcare patterns, it can put pressure on the government to bring about change.
It now plans to carry out further research to identify policies that might reduce 'scarring' effects. Widening childcare coverage, persuading employers to allow more flexible working arrangements and offering better training for women returning to the workplace are options under consideration.
Women's experiences at work can begin to change as soon as they become pregnant. In another new piece of research, the EOC has found that as many as one in five pregnant women says she has either suffered dismissal or significant financial loss as a result - by missing out on a bonus or a pay rise, for example.
Darton says the experiences of women during pregnancy will be a focus of future EOC work.
Heather Stewart The Observer