Women make up 47% of the UK’s workforce, and 38% of these women already have a dependent child(ren), with others looking to become mums in the future. So why is approaching the subject of parenthood sometimes still something of an awkward subject in the workplace?
I’m mid-way through my third trimester, with just under 10 weeks left before I head into the sleepless nights of maternity leave, and I was petrified to tell my employer I was pregnant (the timing was terrible, I had just had a really positive meeting about working towards a promotion, and took a test the following weekend). At the positive result I instantly panicked that the news would hinder any momentum I had managed to build and mark the end of my career progression. As it turns out, I didn’t need to stress, or spend the three months prior going over and over how I was going to word the news. My employers couldn’t be more supportive. So, is the worry of announcing a pregnancy or the plan to adopt a child, and the potential career repercussions of having a child unfounded?
Although there are now laws in place to prevent discrimination against working parents and parents-to-be, it is not uncommon to hear anecdotes about pregnant women missing out on promotions for which they were perfectly qualified or even to be made redundant during pregnancy or whilst on maternity leave.
Shockingly, the Financial Times has found that more than a third of private sector employers in the UK believe it is acceptable to ask female job candidates about their plans to have children, even though the practice has been illegal since 1975. To this point, when talking to my colleagues about this statistic I was told of a woman who recently made the decision to remove her wedding and engagement rings pre-interview as she believed it would strengthen her chances of securing the job. No one should feel the need to take that step in the name of their career.
It’s no secret that it can be hard juggling a career alongside the demands of family life and the expense of childcare however, parents shouldn’t feel nervous or guilty about having a family. In fact, a study by Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, found that over the course of a 30-year career, mothers outperformed women without children at almost every stage of the game, and women with two children were the most productive of all workers.
Returning to work
Returning to work is daunting before maternity leave even begins. It’s a worrying balance of working out how to maximise time bonding, recouping and settling into life with the new arrival with time out from a career that has taken years to build. Not to mention the almost permanent feeling of guilt, both at not being a ‘good’ enough parent and not being able to put in the (often completely unnecessary in hindsight) long hours in the office that, at the time, you believe are necessary to be successful.
This doesn’t just affect women – stay-at-home fathers face a similar stigma. Society still often expects men to be the main bread-winner and full-time working parent. To alleviate the stresses of childcare alongside working, it needs to be easier for both parents to; reduce hours; book time off for parenting; obtain flexible hours to accommodate school-runs and children’s bedtimes; work from home when needed so that they can attend school shows, meetings and to simply have more hands-on time at home with their children. Having this flexibility doesn’t need to take away from a person’s productivity – in face research shows that the opposite is true, but more on that later
For returning mothers especially there’s also potentially a significant impact on wages to consider. According to the Parliamentary Briefing on Improving Gender Pay Transparency, Equality & Human Rights Commission, the average woman working full-time from age 18 to 59 will lose £361,000 in gross earnings over her working life compared to an equivalent male. Typically, an employee will take around six months maternity leave and will often drop the number of working hours on their return, resulting in a personally rewarding but substantial break in their career.
With childcare costs having risen by 52% over past decade, compared with a 17% rise in earnings, it’s unsurprising that many parents opt to work part-time in order to be more financially stable. Inevitably, what works well for work-life balance for one person, won’t be the same for another. For some, part-time work is joyous, but for others, it can seem like a choice between having a family or a full-time career – and with the average age of first-time-mums being 27.9 years old – that’s a lot of career to consider.
Something must give. Whether it’s more government funding for childcare, or flexible hours that serves as a first step, it’s time that the working world caught up collectively and opened the conversation about the balancing act of work and childcare. By engaging, listening and adapting to meet the needs of parents and to enable them to work to the best of their ability without having to compromise, ultimately both the workplace and families will benefit.
One fantastic resource which has helped my personal journey is having an external mentor. I was lucky enough to be selected for the Fast Forward 15 programme, a not-for-profit scheme that selects fifteen women for a year-long one-on-one mentoring programme with an events industry expert. The targets and goals I wrote at the start of the project soon flew into disarray when I found out a month in that I was pregnant. I was ready to scrap it all and hand over to another woman who had a full career ahead of her, until my mentor, Justine Kane, Cofounder of The Event Academy and The Event Talent Agency, made me realise that you can do both – you can be a mum and nurture your career. To have an external, unbiased voice allowed me to vent all my fears and explore all my options in a safe, nonjudgmental environment, giving me time to come to terms with pregnancy and the potential future it presents.
I hope that as more women take top roles in leading companies the balance will shift to become more understanding of parents’ work-life balance. Thankfully, according to CIPD, flexible working is on the rise, giving employees flexibility on where, when and what hours they work. In fact, 43% of employees believe that flexible working would help them with stress, while 52% believe it would make them happier – whether a mother or not.
As more people discuss the challenges of working as a parent, more firms are starting to change their policies. Diageo hit the headlines recently as the £75bn firm became largest in the UK to offer six months’ fully-paid leave to both parents, and a string of firms made the news by announcing they would trial four day working weeks at the same pay as a five-day week. Campaigns such as FlexAppeal created by former journalist Anna Whitehouse – aka MotherPukka – where she champions the benefits of flexible working for all, and National Work Life Week on 7th October also help shed light on the current issues and are working to provide future solutions.
Ultimately, I’ve been fortunate with my pregnancy at work – thanks to davies tanner – and wish this could be said for more working women. I believe that by encouraging parents to be more open about parenthood, more employers will start taking a more flexible approach to parents in their employment.