4 Mothers’ Accounts Of Why They Have Not Found Paid Work
This chapter looks at what mothers viewed as the main barriers to finding suitable paid work. Exploring mothers’ own accounts can help paint a more rounded picture of their situation and aid our understanding of how best to support mothers of young children into work.
In a recent study looking at the experiences of mothers in the UK, Adams et al. (2016) found that around 8% of mothers who were not in paid work were not looking for work. The main reasons given were that they wanted to stay at home to look after their children (75%), that they were unable to find a job that would pay enough to pay for childcare (52%), that they were unable to find suitable childcare (45%), and that they were unable to find a job with the right hours (36%) or in the right location (24%). These findings suggest that mothers are likely to have numerous reasons for not looking for paid work – including a mix of practical reasons and lifestyle preferences.
This chapter considers the main barriers to entering or re-entering work reported by mothers in Scotland who had actively looked for work in the last month. Thus, the focus here is less on mothers’ motivations for looking (or not looking) for paid work, and more on the barriers facing those who are actively seeking work – although, in practice, as exemplified by the range of practical considerations outlined by Adams et al. (2016), there is likely to be a considerable amount of overlap.
Drawing on data collected from mothers in BC2, the chapter provides an overview of the main reasons given by mothers of children aged 10 months, 3 years and 5 years in 2011, 2013 and 2015 who had looked for work in the last month, as to why they had not managed to find paid work. It then moves on to consider in more detail each of the main reasons given by mothers and any changes according to the age of the child. Note that the group of mothers who answered questions about barriers to finding paid work varies across the three age points.
4.2 Key variables used in the analysis
At all three age points, mothers who had not done any paid work in the week before their interview were asked whether they had actively looked for paid work or a place on a Government scheme in the last four weeks. Those who had looked for paid work were asked what they thought were the main reasons they had not found anything suitable. Mothers gave verbatim answers which were subsequently coded into one of five categories: no suitable jobs available; childcare (including availability and affordability); not looked very hard - family commitments; not looked very hard – other reasons  ; other reasons  .
4.3 Key findings
- The main reasons given by mothers as to why they had not managed to find suitable paid work were: that no suitable jobs were available; childcare issues; and not having looked very hard (often because they preferred to stay at home to look after their child or children).
- Among mothers of 10 month old children, more than half quoted a lack of suitable jobs. Among mothers of 5 year olds this had dropped to just a quarter.
- Conversely, while just 14% of mothers of 10 month old children referenced childcare issues as a barrier to finding work, 26% of mothers of 5 year olds did so. Those not living with a partner were more likely than those living with a partner to mention childcare issues when the child was aged 10 months. This suggests that arranging suitable and affordable childcare for the very youngest children may be a particular barrier for single mothers seeking to enter or re-enter the workplace.
- Irrespective of the child’s age, around a third of mothers who had looked for work in the last four weeks indicated that they had not been looking very hard. For some, this was due to family commitments. Others referenced things such as ill health or anticipating moving to a different area, having another baby, going into education, or starting a job they had recently obtained.
4.4 Main reasons why mothers have not found paid work
The main reasons given by mothers for why they had not managed to find suitable paid work were: that no suitable jobs were available; they had issues arranging suitable and affordable childcare; and simply not having looked very hard. In relation to the latter reason, this was often because they preferred to stay at home to look after their child(ren), due to other family commitments, or because of practical constraints on their availability to take up a job (for example because they were due to move to a different area or that they were expecting another child).
Figure 4-A shows the proportion of mothers at each child age point who mentioned each of these as one of the main reasons why they had not managed to find paid work. It shows that in 2011 the most common reason given by mothers in Scotland with a 10 month old child was that no suitable jobs were available (53%). References to ‘no suitable jobs available’ included mentions of struggling to find jobs with hours that would fit in around family responsibilities. For example, some mothers mentioned that they needed working hours that would ‘fit’ with their partner’s working hours, often with reference to childcare, while others referenced the need for working hours that would fit around school hours. Others mentioned that there were simply not many jobs in their particular field, or in their local area. Finally, some noted that there were not many jobs around at all.
14% of mothers of 10 month old children referenced issues with arranging suitable and affordable childcare while 11% had not looked very hard because of family commitments. A further 18% had not looked very hard due to a number of primarily practical reasons, while another 18% referenced a range of other reasons for not having found work.
Two years later the picture had changed slightly. The most commonly referenced reason given by mothers of 3 year old children who were looking for work was still a lack of suitable jobs (42%). The apparent difference in the proportion of mothers who quoted childcare issues is not statistically significant.
A different picture emerges when looking at the main reasons given by mothers of 5 year old children in 2015. At this point, both childcare issues and a lack of suitable jobs were quoted by around one in four mothers who were looking for work, with 26% mentioning childcare issues and 27% mentioning a lack of suitable jobs. The proportions referencing not having looked very hard (for whatever reason) and who reference various other reasons were similar to those seen at earlier age points.
Figure 4‑A: Reasons why mothers had not found paid work, by age of child and year (%)
Base: Mothers in BC2 who looked for paid work in the last four weeks. Base sizes (unweighted/weighted): child aged 10 months=330/353; child aged 3=217/270; child aged 5=177/236.
(a) ’Not looked very hard: other reasons’ included things like moving house, pregnant, going into education, only recently started looking, already found job, ill health.
(b) ’Other reasons’ included lack of experience/qualifications, competitive job market, and no particular reason given (e.g. ‘Don’t know’).
The following sections consider each of the main reasons given by mothers in more detail and discuss the changes observed according to the child’s age.
4.4.1 No suitable jobs available
As outlined above, in 2011 more than half (53%) of mothers of 10 month old children who had looked for work in the last four weeks mentioned a lack of suitable jobs as one of the main reasons why they had not managed to find paid work. This proportion dropped to just over a quarter (27%) of mothers of 5 year old children four years later.
This could reflect differences in the type of work mothers are looking for as their child grows older. It is possible that mothers are more likely to look only for part time work when their child is a baby but are increasingly willing to work longer hours as their child grows older. There is some additional evidence from GUS which supports this. Mothers of children in the older GUS birth cohort ( BC1) who were looking for work were asked whether they were seeking full or part time work. Mothers were asked when the child was aged 2 and when the child was aged 5. At the time the cohort child was aged 2 (out of an unweighted total of 283 mothers), 79% said they were looking for part time work, 11% were looking for full time work, and 11% were looking for either full or part time work. At age 5 (out of an unweighted total of 179 mothers), 71% were looking for part time work, 9% were looking for full time work, and 20% were looking for either full or part time work  . Although relatively small, these differences suggest that by the time their child was aged 5, a higher proportion of mothers were open to working full time, rather than solely looking for part time work  .
Previous analysis of GUS data has shown that part time working is not universally available (Dean et al., 2017) and mothers looking for part time work may therefore face additional barriers to engaging in paid work compared with mothers who are willing to work full time. Indeed, a number of mothers in GUS specifically mentioned a lack of part time jobs as a reason why they had not managed to find suitable work.
Alongside this, between 2011 and 2015, various policy changes were implemented which placed additional requirements on those receiving out-of-work benefits to demonstrate that they were actively seeking work (e.g. Simmons, 2011; UK Government, 2012). Where such requirements were accompanied by additional support with job seeking this may have helped mothers identify available jobs. In any case, with their job searches being scrutinised it is also possible that mothers who were receiving out-of-work benefits felt less able to attribute their lack of success with finding work to the lack of suitable jobs because their definition of ‘suitable’ jobs was being challenged and re-defined through the application of stricter job search criteria. This raises questions about whether the quality of a job considered ‘suitable’ has dropped more generally, although broader consideration of this is beyond the scope of this report.
Finally, the decrease in the proportion of mothers mentioning a lack of suitable jobs coincides with a general improvement in the job market. For example, UK wide, the average number of unemployed per vacancy fell from 5.2 in the first quarter of 2011 to 2.5 in the first quarter of 2015 (Office for National Statistics, 2015). Note, however, that these figures cover both full and part time vacancies, as well as so-called ‘zero-hour contracts’ – the latter which, due to their lack of security, may be less appealing to those with caring responsibilities.
In 2011, around one in six (14%) of mothers of 10 month old children who had looked for work in the last four weeks mentioned childcare issues as a reason why they had not yet obtained a job. At this point, childcare issues seemed to be a particular concern for single mothers, with two in ten (19%) single mothers mentioning childcare as a reason why they had not found work, compared with just one in ten (10%) mothers who were living with a partner  .
These findings suggest that policies aimed at helping mothers to engage in paid work should not disregard the importance of ensuring access to affordable and suitable childcare for younger children, including children under the age of one. Indeed, improving access to childcare for the youngest children may be of particular benefit to single mothers, a group of mothers whom we know are often facing multiple levels of disadvantage.
As already noted, among mothers of 5 year old children who were looking for work, the proportion who quoted childcare issues as a reason why they had not managed to find work had risen to 26%. This may indicate a shift in what mothers view as the main barriers to finding suitable paid work, from a lack of suitable work being seen as the main barrier for mothers of 10 month old children in 2011 to an equal emphasis on childcare among mothers of 5 year old children four years later.
What might have been driving this shift? As suggested above, by the time their child was aged 5, mothers may have been more likely to look for full time work, or at least to be willing to work longer hours than when their child was a baby. Such a shift in priorities could in itself have led to childcare being seen as more of a barrier to finding paid work. If only a limited number of part time jobs were available, simply identifying suitable jobs to apply for would likely have been a key concern for many of the mothers looking for part time work. Conversely, mothers who were willing to work longer hours would have had fewer difficulties identifying suitable jobs. For these mothers, finding childcare that is affordable and fitted around full time working hours may well come to be seen as a more immediate barrier to working than identifying suitable jobs to apply for. Furthermore, finding suitable care for school-aged children (including holiday care) is likely to be at least as (if not more) challenging than finding suitable full day care for younger children (e.g. Harding et al., 2017).
Further to this, as also noted above, between 2011 and 2015 when the GUS data were collected, policy changes introduced stricter requirements on those receiving out-of-work benefits to actively seek paid employment. An implication of this may have been that mothers were increasingly supported (indeed, required) to identify suitable jobs and that other issues, such as finding suitable childcare, were therefore felt to be more prominent.
Finally, childcare has been high on the political agenda in Scotland in recent years, and increasingly so with the introduction of the Children and Young People Act in 2014. It cannot be ruled out that an emphasis on childcare in the public debate may have played a role in bringing childcare issues front of mind for mothers who were not in paid employment.
4.4.3 ‘Not looked very hard’
Irrespective of the child’s age, around a third of mothers who had looked for work in the last four weeks indicated that they had not been looking very hard. For some, this was due to family commitments. These mothers generally quoted looking after children as the reason they were not working, with a number of them commenting that their youngest child  was still too young for them to go back to work. For others, not having looked very hard was down to other things such as not having looked for very long, ill health, or anticipating things like moving to a different area, having another baby, going into education, or starting a job they had recently obtained.
Among mothers of 5 year old children in 2015 who had looked for work in the last four weeks, those who were single were more likely than mothers living with a partner to mention family commitments as a reason for not having found work (20% of single mothers mentioned this compared with 10% of partnered mothers  ). One possible interpretation of this is that mothers who were the sole carers for their children were more likely to prioritise spending time with their children over paid work. To test whether this might be the case, additional analysis was carried out which examined the proportion of mothers of 5 year old children in 2015 who said they were not looking for work because they were looking after home or family (results not shown). The results of this analysis suggested that, if anything, mothers living with a partner were more likely than single mothers to give this as a reason for not looking for work. Another potential interpretation is that single mothers – perhaps especially those with more than one child – were less likely than mothers who lived with a partner to think it plausible that they could manage to combine work with caring for their child or children. While one interpretation does not necessarily rule out the other – for example, mothers may not think combining work and caring for children is plausible, but at the same time they may not mind because they also have a preference for looking after their children rather than working – the potential implications of the latter are important for policy makers, raising questions about whether interventions specifically targeted at single mothers may be required to help these mothers into work.
Mothers of 5 year old children who were living with a partner were more likely than single mothers to say they were not looking very hard for reasons other than family commitments (26% of partnered mothers compared with 11% of single mothers  ). While the exact reasons varied, a common theme appears to be that these mothers had future plans of one kind or another or had only recently started looking for work – as such, many of these mothers may simply have been in-between jobs. The difference between single and partnered mothers may thus primarily be a reflection of the general advantage of partnered mothers. For example, we know that two-parent families tend to have higher household incomes and, on average, partnered mothers would therefore be more likely than single mothers to be able to afford not being in paid work.
GUS respondents were not asked about the intensity of their job search efforts. Nevertheless, it is notable that irrespective of their child’s age, when prompted, around a third of mothers of young children who had looked for work in the last four weeks said they had not been looking very hard. In part, this may be an effect of political efforts and a public discourse which stresses that everyone – including mothers with young children – should be active in the labour market. In this context, mothers may feel compelled to search for and possibly also apply for jobs, even if they are not expecting to take on paid work. More generally, it is not clear that these mothers face any particular ‘barriers’ to entering or re-entering paid work. Rather, many of these mothers may simply have weighed up their options and found that, for whatever reason, engaging in intensive job searches and entering paid work is not currently the best option for them. As such, they may be ‘actively looking’ only in so far that they are keeping an eye on the job market in case anything should come up which would make (re)entering paid work seem worthwhile.
4.4.4 Other reasons
In addition to the three main categories of reasons discussed above, some mothers mentioned that they were lacking qualifications and experience to be able to compete with others in the job market. Some also mentioned transport as an issue. While only mentioned by a small proportion of mothers, the references to a lack of qualifications and experience are crucial for efforts which seek to address the inequalities in the labour market – especially, perhaps, efforts which seek to address the persistent pay gap between men and women. The reference to transport issues is something which may be particularly pertinent for women living in less accessible areas  . It also suggests that local area planning, including considerations about public transport, should not be excluded from initiatives to support mothers’ employment.
Email: Ganka Mueller
Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit
The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House