Is more support needed for our region’s working mothers?
PUBLISHED: 06:15 07 March 2018 | UPDATED: 15:13 07 March 2018
As campaigns against sexual harassment and discrimination at work gather pace, one specific issue risks being left behind – motherhood.
Having a child and getting stuck on the “mummy track” is still a primary reason why female employment, particularly in more senior jobs, continues to lag behind that of men.
While widespread remote and flexible working in modern workplaces is helping more women to progress further, evidence shows the deck can still be stacked against them.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission says it uncovered “antiquated” attitudes towards pregnancy in a study which showed around half of employers thought it was acceptable to ask a woman in the recruitment process if she is pregnant or has young children, and a third thought it was fine to ask about her future plans to have children.
Jeanette Wheeler was already a partner at regional law firm Birketts when she became a mother at 40 – she returned to work full-time but said juggling work and home life could still be challenging.
She believes many employers are “labouring under the illusion that they treat everyone fairly”, while maintaining a bias against flexible working.
“In my experience it is not merely the time off taken at the time of child-birth which impacts on progression – it is the need to work flexibly and sometimes reduce hours for a period of time afterwards which leads to women being overlooked for promotion or other opportunities or indeed being moved into lower status, less well-paid roles – what’s called the ‘mummy track’,” said Ms Wheeler.
“The new gender pay gap reporting requirements for larger businesses will help to shine a light on structural inequalities on the status of women in the workplace.”
She added that while levelling the playing field for working mothers is not a straightforward task, employers should do more to address barriers such as the achievability and demands of higher status roles for part-time workers and the difficulties and costs of childcare.
Diane Deller, senior tax manager at BDO in Norwich, said while the increasing use of technology has made home working easier, there can still be an “expectation” of being able to attend meetings in person or work extended hours.
She said: “The problem for anyone in a technically demanding profession is that part-time working means fewer hours in the office and potentially less exposure to challenging work, so you risk climbing the ladder more slowly. For working parents, committing to full-time hours needs a significant support network to work successfully.
“Flexibility is needed on both sides. Those employers who are less accommodating will create stress in the workplace that can impact on career progression and indeed retention of top talent. Working mums are often the ones that feel that impact most keenly.”
‘I’m pushed to play to my strengths’
Hayley Doughty, an HR consultant at Aviva’s Surrey Street headquarters in Norwich, said a flexible and understanding team leader had made all the difference to her post-natal career.
She and her husband David Bradford have a daughter, Freya, three, with another baby due in the summer.
Ms Doughty, 32, said her strengths at work had been recognised and played to. “At the moment I’m leading a redesign which won’t be completed by the time I go on maternity leave, but I’m still
being pushed into doing work where my strengths lie because it benefits me and the business, rather than putting me into an admin role where I won’t accelerate.”
The couple will be taking advantage of Aviva’s parental leave policy when their next child is born, with Mr Bradford set to take 26 weeks off and Ms Doughty the full 52 weeks available.
While initially hesitant about how six months’ paternity leave would affect his career, Mr Bradford said his manager had reassured him “that it was the right thing to do”.
How can employers help?
Firm policies and emotional support from employers play a part in helping female workers through pregnancy and beyond, according to employee engagement specialist Michelle Gant.
“While a clear and accessible procedure is essential, at the heart of supporting a woman during maternity and beyond is open conversation,” said Ms Gant, director of the Dereham-based Engaging People Company.
“The way a manager and indeed a company engages around maternity and parenthood is also key. Companies which celebrate family, where the internal dialogue is positive around women who take time out to have babies, will create a sense of security and belonging for women at a time when they may well be feeling vulnerable.”
She added that while flexibility in working arrangements was “essential”, a mother in a part-time role “should not feel any less valued for the contribution she is making than her colleagues”.