Are working mothers being forced to trade job security for flexibility?


“I wouldn’t say I chose to be a freelancer – it just ended up being how I worked,” says TV presenter Hanane Spiers. As a London-based mother who also works as an emcee, actress and model, she is one of a growing number of female freelancers.

“I realised freelancing was the only option I had where I could be at home or go for a walk in the park with my child and be happy in my career of choice without my life becoming monotonous,” she tells Equal Times.

Many mothers have found a work-life balance hard to attain, especially if they work full-time. With increased digitalisation, the definition of work has fundamentally shifted, raising questions about whether many freelancers are fairly compensated or adequately protected.

As the classic employer-employee relationship is increasingly diminished, Thiébaut Weber, confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), says digital platforms have been a major driver for the increase in freelancers in the EU.

“Digitalisation presents huge challenges for trade unions, with lots of opportunities but also threats,’’ Weber tells Equal Times. “Governments, public authorities and trade unions need to anticipate this to ensure the new world of work is based on solidarity, social protections, and rights – not on inequalities.”

According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), non-standard forms of work, including freelancing, now account for one-third of all employment in the 35 OECD states. In the UK for example, the total number of freelancers stands at 1.91 million, with many in the artistic, publishing and media sectors. Women make up 40 per cent of this total.

The number of freelance mothers in the UK increased between 2008 and 2015 by 70 per cent with a 24 per cent increase from 2012 to 2014 alone. According to figures published by the UK Association of Independent Professionals and Self-Employed (IPSE), one-in-seven working mothers in the UK (about 15 per cent, or 287,000 women) is currently a freelancer.

However, Weber remains cautious.

“It depends on the arrangement. I’m not strongly against self-employment as I’m looking to protect all workers,’’ he says. ‘’But I won’t promote it as a miraculous solution for mothers as companies like to present it as.”

Pros and cons

Freelancing can undoubtedly offer benefits such as a choice of jobs, clients and working hours. Control and flexibility are especially sought after by mothers looking to balance their careers and family lives.

In Spiers’ case, she says: “It boils down to the simple fact that I can be with my child anytime I want to, except when she’s at school. My life is based on my choices and my decisions.

“I could be selected by Royal Appointment to present at a gala dinner one day and find myself the next day doing a promotional job which entails data capture in an exhibition,’’ she says. ‘’Some may find this disheartening, but this variety is an aspect of freelancing that I have come to enjoy.”

But increased flexibility also means increased precariousness, particularly for working mothers, says Tatjana Ždanoka, a Latvian MEP with the European Parliament’s Greens/EFA group. She authored a report called On creating labour market conditions favourable for work-life balance, which she presented to the Parliament in September.

“I support ‘smart working’ through a combination of flexibility, autonomy and collaboration, which doesn’t require someone to be at the workplace and enables them to manage their own work hours,” Ždanoka explains to Equal Times.

“However, increased flexibility can result in an intensification of the labour market discrimination currently experienced by women – in the shape of lower wages, non-standard forms of employment and disproportionate responsibility for unpaid household tasks,” she says, adding that legislative adjustments are needed to prevent discrimination.

“We also reject a shift from a culture of presence to a culture of permanent availability, which is partly a result of flexible work arrangements,” she continued.

In addition, there are other disadvantages for freelance mothers where flexibility is traded for security such as a lack of regular income, no paid holidays, lack of pension schemes, no sick leave or quiet work periods.

For freelance mums this could translate into a lack of a fixed income stream to plan budgets, save money and pay the bills. “If I decide to go on holiday, fall ill, have another child, or if my child needs me due to school issues or illness, I have to ensure I am able to support us financially as there is no one paying for my time off,” says Spiers.

Added to this is the pressure for freelancer mothers to take every single job available.

“The need to do jobs just to keep the finances up can take a negative toll on my career. For instance, even though I do enjoy promotional work, some jobs can entail long hours on your feet,” says Spiers.

Weber also highlights that while the gender pay gap affects most working women, freelance mothers are particularly vulnerable to being paid less to their male counterparts.

“Freelancers need time to work but also to look for more work. Women will charge the same as men but have different availability,’’ Weber says. ‘’Correlating activities in care, looking for work then doing the work is a clear basis for inequalities. This is why we need legislation and regulations for freelancers.”

Parental leave and childcare

The attractiveness of freelancing for mothers is further apparent due to high childcare costs, which potentially cause a significant barrier for mothers to take up full-time jobs. A recent survey by the UK parenting website Mumsnet suggested that up to 37 per cent of mothers would return to full-time work if affordable childcare were available.

“Childcare is key here for both female employees and freelancers so that having a child does not negatively impact on someone’s career,” said Weber.

Ždanoka’s report also recognised childcare as a major factor influencing women’s participation in the workforce, and called upon EU states to “guarantee” access to affordable and quality “early childhood education and care (ECEC)”.

Ždanoka wants to “break the stereotype of women being the only possible carers.” She is calling on the EU Commission to present a ‘Paternity Leave Directive’ to ensure that men receive a minimum mandatory paid leave to take up their share of parental responsibility and “reduce discrimination against women in the labour market.”

If there were better and longer paternal leave periods for fathers, would full-time work become a more attractive option for mothers as opposed to part-time work or freelancing?

Sweden has a very successful record in reconciling both work and family life. Nearly 80 per cent of mothers with children under the age of six are employed, the third-highest in Europe.

Anita Valberg, senior advisor with the Swedish Union of Journalists (SJF) explains to Equal Times that Sweden has a highly developed parental leave system, with both mothers and fathers entitled to eight months each for parental leave, a total of 16 months per child. In addition 90 days alone is reserved for the father.

Valberg furthers explains: “For childcare in Sweden you pay a fee depending on your income, but there is also a ceiling on that fee which makes childcare affordable for almost everyone.”

Meanwhile Weber contends freelancers need more protections.

“There is ground for more rules and for unions to better inform freelancers,’’ he says. ‘’They need to organise into unions and gain access to social protections. With collective bargaining we can set a level playing field for wages and decent standards for all freelancers.”