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Britain’s unaffordable and dysfunctional childcare system is forcing women out of work


4 min read

If the United Kingdom’s economy is to advance and flourish, then it must mobilise the full potential of its people. That includes mothers.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old her hourly pay rate is 33 per cent behind a man’s – not because she is not talented enough, not because she doesn’t want to work, but because of the hundreds of unnecessary barriers that women headbutt when trying to have children and a career. 

For many women, it isn’t until they reach the waddling stage of pregnancy that the challenges of being a working mum become apparent. Pregnancy discrimination is rife in this country, with 54,000 women being forced out of their job every year for getting pregnant or for taking maternity leave. That’s one woman every 10 minutes. One in nine pregnant women lose their job for getting pregnant. I was one of them. The day after I informed my employer I was expecting my first child, they sacked me by voicemail. My employer was a children’s charity. The toll this takes on the mental health and earning potential of women is catastrophic. 

One in nine pregnant women lose their job for getting pregnant. I was one of them

But the real killer of women’s careers isn’t discrimination wielded by tyrant employers; it’s our unaffordable, inaccessible, dysfunctional childcare system. There are one million women between the age of 25 and 49 years-old who do not work because of caring responsibilities, according to the most recent Office for National Statistics data. The Social Mobility Foundation found that there are 1.7 million women who work fewer hours than they would like due to childcare costs and availability, resulting in up to £28.2bn economic output lost every year. A survey we conducted with more than 20,000 parents in 2021 found that of those earning under £20,000 a year, 16 per cent said they had to use a food bank due to childcare costs. 

Moreover our research (and this is devastating) with 1,630 women who had an abortion in the last five years found that six in 10 said childcare costs were either the main reason or a key factor in their decision to terminate their pregnancy. 

Women are ending wanted pregnancies. They are leaving the labour market in droves, forced into part time work, and some are forced into desperate poverty, all because of an unaffordable, inaccessible, dysfunctional childcare system that has been neglected for more than a decade. 
So far, political solutions to the childcare conundrum have focused on cost cutting for parents, but childcare is not babysitting; it is early years education and for education to be effective it must be high-quality. It is well documented that the first 1,001 days of a child’s life are the most critical to their future. Childcare professionals are the architects of our children’s brains. If we invest in them it will pay dividends in terms of closing the attainment gap between the richest and poorest children, improving school outcomes for all children, and it has shown improved health and increased earning outcomes over children’s lifetimes. 

Parents don’t want cheap, low-quality childcare – that is why we overwhelmingly rejected the proposal to relax ratios. We want what other countries have: affordable, accessible, good quality childcare for all our children. 

Pregnant Then Screwed, the charity I founded in 2015, has a community of more than 300,000 mothers who will vote for the political party that they perceive as taking the strongest action on this issue. In October last year, 15,000 parents marched through the streets to demand childcare reform as part of our protest, March of the Mummies. Not a day goes by when childcare isn’t a focus for the national press. 

Childcare is a looming political battle that is long overdue – ignore it at your peril.


Joeli Brearley, author and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed.

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