Starting a family and maintaining your career isn’t meant to be easy, but I wonder if perhaps it could be a little simpler… As a working woman in my thirties I’ve heard a wide range of experiences from my friends about how their workplace has dealt with their impending motherhood. There are those who were greeted with excitement and support from employers, right from their early hospital appointments to an honest discussion on their need to work flexibly on return to work. On the other hand I’ve also heard some horror stories and, in some cases, what can only be described as a breach of employment law. I’ve frequently heard about inflexibility over changing working hours and pressure to take a shorter maternity period.
In the worst case, one of my friends who has had a career in media with a long term rolling contract, found her contract had not been renewed for the first time in seven years when her employer found out she was having a baby.
Whilst some of these more extreme examples could see their employers facing a tribunal, in many cases they aren’t working outside of the law. For instance, any employee with 26 weeks continuous service can make a request to work flexibly, however this can be refused on business grounds. It is no longer realistic that a family has one breadwinner. With the growing cost of living, housing and lately inflation, even families making a good income, way beyond the national average, are feeling the pinch. But throwing childcare into the mix is when things get really tough; in the UK, childcare constitutes on average one third of household income according to Working Families, and for single families the challenge is even greater, often with the cost of childcare negating most, if not all, of the earned wages.
Then of course there is then the impact on the mother’s career. According to research by the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM), over 50% of respondents to their study into parental leave felt that maternity leave negatively impacted a women’s career. Furthermore, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 50% of mothers with school-age children in the UK work fewer than 20 hours a week in the UK compared with an OECD average of 30%. It is also recognised by the ILM that women are discriminated against by potential and current employers who will not consider them for a new role or a promotion, for fear that they may take a lengthy period of leave to start a family.
The issue of parenthood of course presents challenges to a business. There is a legal requirement to pay maternity leave for 39 weeks, and since 2010 two weeks paid paternity leave is also available (though according to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) only 1% of the population take this up), and of course there is the additional challenge of providing cover for this period. A large multi-national business may not struggle with this, but for an SME organisation a short-term placement can prove costly and challenging.
In early 2015, new legislation comes to effect which will mean that parents can choose to share leave over the course of a year. It is intended that this will support women in business, help to end the ‘glass ceiling’ and ensure the role of parenting is truly equal. It’s hard not to be sceptical; with such a low take up on paternity leave, how sure can we be sure that this will make any difference? At Sellick Partnership our workforce is 80% female, and the senior management team has made a decision to support their staff, by offering the opportunity to work part time or with reduced hours if their personal circumstances require it. It’s a right decision; an organisation which is all about finding the right talent, should recognise that retaining quality talent is pivotal in business success. Going back to my friend’s experiences, I think what troubles me most is that none of this is new. It isn’t a surprise that a female employee might decide to have a baby, and it is no more surprising that she might want to keep her career. If there is to be true equality, isn’t it time for our businesses to truly accept that work and family need to co-exist?
For more information about working as a parent, guardian or carer visit www.workingfamilies.org.uk. Jacqui Musson is Marketing Communications Executive at Sellick Partnership, recruitment specialists in the legal and financial sectors. This post is in association with Sellick Partnership’