The decision to start a family is one of the most common arguments used to justify the pay disparity between men and women. There are countless stories of women being unfairly penalised at every stage of their career for having a child. Women are discriminated against at interview phase, pushed back in the queue for promotion and roles made redundant in their maternity absence.
Statistics from charity Maternity Action reveal that approximately 54,000 women lose their jobs each year from the UK alone because they fall pregnant, but the issue of parental leave is a global epidemic. In 2014, data from the International Labour organisation exposed the USA as having the worst statutory paid maternity policy in the world with an average of 0 weeks faltering behind countries like Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Kenya.
Here we explore why existing parental leave models in the West are failing women get to the top and how it could look in the future.
The Problem: Stigma
Historically, parental leave has always been viewed as a woman’s issue. Women are seen as the primary caregiver which has determined the inherently biased nature of maternity versus paternity leave across the world. Irrespective of country, new fathers across the globe are offered a fraction of the time off relative to their new mother counterparts, and even then, many dads do not take their full entitlement. Why? Because there is still a stigma associated with becoming a parent in the workplace.
Traditional corporate culture has always celebrated individuals who put their career in front of having a personal life. The early-starters, late-finishers and no-lunch-takers are mistakenly perceived as being the most committed and best performing meaning they are the first chosen for progression and promotion opportunities.
Individuals who decide to embark on a family are often categorised as lacking in ambition. It is not just women who experience this discrimination either. In a Guardian opinion piece, Gabrielle Jackson highlights several studies that show men who take their paternity leave are subject to pay cuts, reduced hours and discrimination at work, the same setbacks mothers have always suffered. Jackson celebrates the model set by Europe’s gender equality heroes Finland, Norway and Sweden who have enforced mandatory paternity leave in order for a family to be receive their full parental leave entitlement.
The lack of support for fathers from employers in the UK and US means it’s the mothers who will continue to lose out as they have no choice but to stay at home to provide the full necessary care for new-borns.
The Bad Egg
Last year, tech giants Apple and Facebook proudly announced plans to offer cryopreservation or egg freezing as part of their employee benefits in a bid to attract more women into the sector. Both companies celebrate the policies as innovative solutions in helping women stay on the career ladder by covering the big costs associated with the fertility treatment, with Apple claiming: “We want to empower women at Apple to do the best work for their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families.” Their message is clear: start a career here and we will help you start a family (when we think the time is right). But what about the women who still want to take time out to have children early on in their employment? Whilst the intension behind these policies has been to give women more options, the policy has only served to reaffirm the division between the career-focused i.e. those who opt into egg freezing to have children at a later date versus “the others” who are perceived as choosing to put their careers on hold.
It’s not difficult to see which option businesses would prefer, which speaks volumes about who would be deemed more eligible for opportunities for promotion. Conversations in HR would change to Sarah and Rebecca outperforming on a project, but Rebecca deemed the better candidate for the new director position because she has already booked her fertility clinic appointment next month. In essence, these schemes are companies dictating when they think it acceptable for staff to have a family.
Facebook’s decision to cover the hefty $20,000 costs for egg freezing and storage is indeed extremely generous but in order to curb the stigma, the company needs to offer an equivalent gesture to soon-to-be parents. Having a child is a wonderful but nonetheless costly decision and any new parents would welcome an equivalent financial incentive to help them get their family started.
Eva Tutchell and John Edmunds are co-authors of Man-Made: Why So Few Women Are in Positions of Power”, a collection of stories from over 100 women about their experiences of sexism in the workplace throughout their careers. Within the narrative, Tutchell and Edmunds propose some ground-breaking solutions to tackle the pay gap, which includes a call for paid career breaks which parental leave could be classified under. At the recent UK Working Mums Top Employer Awards, Edmunds stressed the need to challenge the burn-out culture we adhere to and re-define the meaning of achieving work-life balance.
The introduction of paid career breaks would not only mean young children spend more time with both parents, but would also give women more opportunities to get back to work earlier which would help redress the pay disparity. Tutchell highlighted the importance for companies to embrace flexible working and part-time employment strategies in order to enable families to achieve equality both at home and at work.
Last year Expert Market launched “Family First”, an initiative where parents are invited to discuss the best possible arrangement to accommodate for their new circumstances. Amanda Nuttall, Talent Acquisition Director at Expert Market comments on her experience of job-sharing: Its quite rare for companies to offer director level staff the opportunity to job share. After maternity leave, I returned to work for 3 days a week which ensured I was kept in the loop of key movements within the company but also on-hand to be with my daughter whilst she was still very young. As she got older and became more settled into nursery, I increased my hours accordingly which has made my own settling in a lot easier!
Businesses that acknowledge and support their employees’ responsibilities outside of work are those that are demonstrating a true commitment to staff wellbeing. Having such an approach will enable an organisation to not only attract but also retain the best talent. Jackie Drabble, HR Operations Director reiterates: When working out strategies for parental leave and flexible working its important to think ahead. If a company cant accommodate the needs of parents well, they will find that they have a high staff turnover and a lack of senior staff members. Making clear policies which put parents needs first will benefit the company in the long run as they will keep the best talent for longer and have happier, more committed employees.
The millennial generation are markedly different to their predecessors in that they have a far more progressive outlook on life, including what they want and expect from employers. The 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey revealed that 60% of those asked seek to work for organisations that have a “sense of purpose” beyond generating profit, which suggests the dynamic between a company and their respective employees is transforming.
For the millenial workforce, flexibility and a good work-life balance is a key priority. According to a recent report from Ernst & Young (EY), 86% of US millennials are less likely to resign if paid parental leave was offered whilst an additional 38% would consider moving abroad to enjoy the paid parental benefits overseas.
The competition to attract the best talent is fiercer than ever before, and in order to capture their attention businesses need to adapt their business models to match the flexible, forward-thinking workers of the future.