Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pregnant pause

Bumper spread on the effects of maternity leave on a woman's career in today's Irish Independent...

'When I became pregnant, I worried about my job. When I became a mum, my career disintegrated'
High-flying financier Nichola Pease has claimed that maternity leave is too long and damages women's career prospects. But do bosses need to be more accommodating? Susan Daly reports

By Susan Daly

Wednesday November 11 2009

Imagine a young mother whose baby is born at 24 weeks. The baby weighs 1lb 19ozs and spends months in hospital hooked up to ventilators and tubes. When mum returns to work, a colleague greets her with: "Three months' extra maternity leave? Handy how the timing worked out for you there."

Hard to believe anyone could be so crassly insensitive -- but it's a true story.

Joy Redmond of human resources company was horrified when the mother of that premature baby relayed her experience. It's an extreme case but, says Redmond, indicative of how extended maternity leave is sometimes viewed in the workplace.

"In general," she says, "there is a negative buzz that some mothers are on the skive."

It's a strong statement but then the issue of maternity leave is emotive. There was uproar when French Justice Minister Rachida Dati made an appearance at work five days after giving birth by Caesarean section last January. While some applauded her slick black suit and vertiginous stilettos, some commentators felt she had done an injustice to other new mothers by declining to take up the French entitlement to 16 weeks of fully paid maternity leave.

"She has turned the clock back for a new generation of mothers," the broadcaster Anne Diamond wrote at the time.

Diamond said that she herself regretted going back to work days after giving birth.

What got lost in the furore was the fact that the entitlement to maternity leave didn't extend to government ministers when Dati gave birth (a proposal has since been passed to reform that institutional 'oversight'). Also, her trip to parliament wasn't to show off baby pictures. Her boss Nicolas Sarkozy picked that day to introduce a huge reform of the French legal system. As justice minister, no doubt Dati felt an obligation -- or pressurised, who knows -- to be there.

At this juncture in the difficult jobs market, many women have similar fears of being sidelined.

"In the boom people were paying full maternity leave to retain key staff," says Joy Redmond. (Employers are not legally obliged to pay anything to women on maternity leave.) "The mood changed last year, with the idea being that there was a glut of candidates out there, and maternity leave top-ups became less prevalent."

Redmond, however, feels that there is now a move back again towards flexibility towards staff who are seen as an asset.

Patricia Callan of the Small Firms Association points out that as most smaller companies don't pay a maternity salary top-up anyway, it doesn't cost them any extra to find a replacement to cover a woman's job when they are out for months.

"Employers see maternity law as the most protected form of leave," says Callan.

"Say, for example, someone starts with you on a probationary period. Then they tell you within a few weeks of starting that they are pregnant -- well the probation clause goes right out the window and they must be accommodated. They are not a victimised group."

In the civil service, however, maternity leave has an impact on staffing levels as there is currently a ban on replacing people on leave. And the Equality Tribunal last year awarded €30,000 to a woman who had claimed she had been the victim of pregnancy-related discrimination at a credit management firm. She was made redundant while seven months pregnant.

There have, on the other hand, been suggestions that some women take cynical advantage of lengthy maternity leave.

Last year, there were dark mutterings when newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky announced she was 12 weeks pregnant -- six weeks after starting a six-figure salaried job at Channel 5 in the UK. Last month, nine months after returning from leave, she announced she was pregnant again.

Remember when former MEP Mary Lou McDonald was attacked for a seemingly high rate of absenteeism from Brussels in 2006? It turned out she was on maternity leave. Health Minister Mary Harney argued that McDonald was seen doing work for her Sinn Fein party in Dublin at that time, the implication being that McDonald was not using her maternity leave for purely child-centric purposes.

A mother I know who has two children under the age of three says she is frequently told how lucky she is to be able to "swan around" for months.

"They think I sit around drinking coffee all day and getting my nails done," she says. "When the kids are awake I'm entertaining them; when they're asleep I'm trying to get the housework done. I don't know how I'll cope when I'm back at work. And I have to go back -- my husband's job is not secure."

Fine Gael TD George Lee got a lash for tabling a Dáil question enquiring about possible reduction of maternity leave in the public sector to 16 weeks. He quickly withdrew the question, with a FG spokesperson saying it had originated as a constituent's enquiry.

But the question echoed comments from high-flying London financier Nichola Pease last month that maternity leave might just be too long.

Pease, a mother of two and director of JO Hambro Capital Management, said she feared that the culture of longer maternity leave meant that employers often see women staff as a "nightmare".

"We have got to be realistic and make sure the protection around women doesn't end up backfiring," she said.

The effect of taking time out to have children on women's capacity to advance in their careers is not just anecdotal. A report published last month by the National Women's Council of Ireland found that having children had almost no impact on men's rate of employment.

Nine in every 10 childless women are in the workplace. By contrast, only six in 10 women with children are employed outside the home.

A study of the post-graduate careers of MBA students at Harvard found that any career interruption -- a period of six months or more out of work -- is costly in terms of future earnings.

Ten years on from graduating, Harvard's female MBAs were 22pc more likely than the male MBAs to have had at least one career interruption.

"The presence of children is the main contributor to the lesser job experience, greater career discontinuity and shorter work hours for female MBAs," claimed the report.

One wonders where the daddy is in all this. Should the debate around maternity leave not be one about parental leave? After the physical and emotional toll on a woman of giving birth are taken into account, allowing parents to divide the remainder of leave between them might spread the career impact between them.

Sweden, for example, is oft cited as a utopian provider of parental leave -- 96 weeks' paid leave can be divided between both mother and father as they see fit. Patricia Callan from the SFA points out that under the current law, the only way the father is entitled to extended paid paternal leave is if the mother has died.

"Saying that," she observes wryly, "I remember a study of that leave in Sweden -- they found that a huge proportion of the fathers timed their share of the leave with the elk-hunting season."




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