Maternity leave in the UK – a gender gap closing policy?


Awarded: July 2020 

GW4 community leads 
University of Bath: Joanna Clifton-Sprigg (PI), Eleonora Fichera 
University of Bristol: Susan Harkness 
Cardiff University: Ezgi Kaya 
University of Exeter: Michelle Ryan 

Project overview 

We will bring together academics from across disciplines and institutions to debate issues surrounding maternity leave provision in the UK and its effect on gender pay gap, and to establish an ambitious, policy-relevant research agenda. 


There is evidence that the “motherhood wage penalty” is larger for highly skilled women whose opportunity cost of time is higher. However, little is known about certain sectors of employment, including academia.   

Policies like paid family leave, a flexible workplace or childcare should help to level the playing field. Many U.K. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) offer differentially generous maternity leave packages, but are they effective? Preliminary analyses by Dr Clifton-Sprigg and Dr Fichera show a negative correlation between generosity of the package and leave taken by female academics. The opposite is found for non-academics at these institutions. We will explore potential explanations behind these findings and expand the agenda to consider other sectors of employment.    

This research opportunity is placed within the wider debate on the gender pay gap, which is narrower within the public than the private sector in the UK. Within the academic sector, there is a large gender pay gap, particularly in the sciences and in senior positions.  

Persistent gender pay gap constitutes a societal challenge as it highlights existing inequalities in the labour markets and is an obstacle to the development of inclusive societies, one of the objectives of the Global Challenges Research Framework. Various policies (including maternity leave) are aimed at reducing gender labour market inequalities. Yet, little is known about their effectiveness, particularly in academia.   

Project summary  

The importance of this GW4 collaboration is to establish an interdisciplinary network that combines expertise across the social sciences and draws on a large non-academic network. This will allow us to deliver a step-change in labour market research through building an agenda focussed on a new policy relevant question, engaging with stakeholders, applying for grant funding and publishing research with policy recommendations for closing the gender pay gap.   

We propose a series of events aimed at bringing together academic and non-academic experts from across institutions to identify challenges posed within this theme and establish an ambitious research agenda going forward. 

Community site (GW4 Portal)