17th March 2020

Women working in retail are no less ambitious in their careers after having children, according to new research from Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, adding impetus on employers to address the ‘motherhood penalty’.

The research has identified a range of factors affecting the career progression of working mothers in the UK retail sector. By studying the experiences of mothers with jobs in the UK retail sector, it also found that many managers wrongly believe female employees returning to work from maternity leave harbour lower levels of aspiration in the workplace.

It further showed that this misplaced assumption can itself bear a larger influence on a woman’s career progression than previously expected. The fear held by working mothers that career progression will negatively affect their work-life balance, compounded by a lack of senior female role models, is also identified as a problem in the study.

The findings are presented in a dissertation, ‘Negotiating Ambition: Mothers’ Experiences of Career Progression in Commercial Retail Careers’, by postgraduate student Anna Harris, who conducted the research as part of her Masters in Business Administration degree at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Harris said: “Existing data shows how the gender pay gap significantly widens at the point, on average, when women have children. Commonly referred to as the ‘motherhood penalty’, this is often justified by explanations that women have 'opted out' of work mentally or have chosen part-time roles.

“However, my research has identified that many mothers working in the retail sector have not opted out and much more can be done by senior management and organisations to support women returning from maternity leave to fulfil their career ambitions.”

The qualitative study details findings from small to large firms in the UK’s retail sector and included interviews with mothers working for major retailers as well as suppliers, occupying both junior and senior positions.

Francie, a junior manager at a multinational supplier was interviewed as part of the study. She said: “A general assumption was made that because I was a mother I wasn't interested in progressing and just wanted to come in, do my job and go home.”

Gill, a senior manager at a large UK retailer, said: “I have a way of managing my work life balance and my fear is always that I don’t want to disrupt that. I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking on a bigger job.”

The research outlines recommendations for employers to address the issues identified, including ensuring that stereotypes surrounding women returning from maternity leave are challenged, offering additional support for returning mothers, and implementing work-life balance practices such as flexible working for all parents.

Tackling these issues is a particular focus of the wider business and management research undertaken at the University’s Decent Work and Productivity Research Centre.

Harris said: “Actions put in place by businesses to address the gender pay gap or the motherhood pay gap often include confidence or resilience training and mentoring programmes.

“My research suggests that factors holding back mothers in the workplace have very little to do with the women themselves and shows a clear benefit in employers taking responsibility for the part they play in both supporting female career progression and reducing their contribution to the gender pay gap.”

Ian Jenner, Senior Lecturer in Leadership Development at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “This research has identified one of the barriers facing many women working in the UK’s retail sector. By building knowledge about the relationship between work quality and performance, we can ensure that work is both decent for workers and productive for organisations, which is vital to the success of any good society.”


This article is based on original research first shared via the Manchester Metropolitan University website. It has been republished here with kind permission of the author in support of International Women’s’ Day.