Two news stories about maternity leave seem like a positive sign for working parents – but is the fact that they’re news at all a problem?
Recently the Sydney Morning Herald wrote a story on PepsiCo in Australia and New Zealand that highlighted the fact that women hold 40 per cent of senior roles, make up more than 60 per cent of the research and development team, and 70 per cent of the company’s sales leadership. The story’s hook? While on maternity leave, a woman was promoted to Chief HR Officer.
“It sends a very strong message … when someone is on maternity leave and gets promoted,” says Robbert Rietbroek, CEO of PepsiCo ANZ.
Also this week, Women’s Agenda posted a personal account from Sally Hasler who was hired for a Victorian government sector job while 34 weeks pregnant. She worked for a fortnight before taking maternity leave. She writes, “when I was informed I was the preferred candidate, I told them I was pregnant. You can imagine my relief, when the response was ‘that changes nothing’.”
In a society that has a different attitude towards parental leave (like some European ones), such stories aren’t worth reporting because they would be fairly common. Instead, these stories are exceptional. Far less exceptional, and so less reported on, is that pregnant Australian employees are more likely to be dismissed, made redundant, have their role restructured or their contract renewal declined than they are to be promoted.
A 2014 survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission revealed that 18 per cent of new mothers received such treatment. Equally alarming: the same survey found that almost 50 per cent of respondents experienced some variety of unfavourable treatment during pregnancy, maternity leave or on their return to work – yet only four per cent reported this fact to a government body.
For those who did, they pretty much wasted their time. In research published by the Australian Journal of Labour Law they looked at 10 pregnancy-related discrimination decisions from 2010-14. Not a single employee won their case.
In an article on The Conversation, the authors of the research explained why the court ruled for the employers. In some cases the court found the “redundancies were genuine as, hypothetically, anyone absent for whatever reason would have been treated the same.” As the authors note, this doesn’t take into account the obvious differences between a parent returning to work (who could typically be expected to seek some sort of flexible working arrangement) and someone returning to full-time work from an extended holiday.
In other cases, women who were about to go on maternity leave or return from it, had their roles redistributed or abolished. And the court “accepted employer evidence that parental leave did not figure in the decisions to make them redundant.”
On an anecdotal note, Rhonda Brighton Hall, CEO and founder of mwah.live, wrote on this site last year that, frequently, she has received calls from distressed pregnant women asking for help after having just been made redundant. She explains their state of mind as being reluctant to pursue the issue, and why companies are right when they believe the women won’t claim discrimination.
The women “are usually shocked, embarrassed, teary, worried about the impact on their mental health and the physical well-being of their baby. They don’t want to fight a giant legal case a month before their baby is born. They have a real fear that if they do fight, they will be deemed ‘unemployable’. A troublemaker, who ‘went legal.’”
More recently the Fair Work Ombudsman has taken up cases against employers who have allegedly unfairly dismissed or mistreated pregnant women. The details of these cases seem particularly egregious – including keeping a woman’s government-funded maternity leave pay, and preventing a woman from returning to work before getting her to sign a resignation letter they had written. It’s fair to say that most cases of parents being treated unfairly by their employer wouldn’t be so blatant, and therefore harder to prosecute.
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Amazing HR and the other side of the maternity leave spectrum
Patagonia, a US outdoor clothing company, has a 100 per cent retention rate of mothers. As reported in Quartz, Dean Carter, head of their HR, said, “I wish it was 97.5% because 100% just doesn’t sound accurate.”
Much like PepsiCo ANZ, Patagonia has a leadership team that values women and parenthood, and translates those values into practice. They approach employees from a perspective that they will spend their whole lives with the company, whether they do or don’t. They offer 16 weeks fully paid maternity leave, a nanny if you travel for the company, and top notch on-site childcare (competitively priced, and paid for in part by the employees who use it).
How expensive is it? Quartz did the sums on the childcare centre: including tax breaks, and the benefits of retention and engagement it’s .005% of all their selling, general and administrative costs.
Even so, for most companies such generosity will seem completely unfeasible. But as Carter says, “It’s so easy to come up with an excuse – we are too big, or too small, or too space-constrained. That will become more difficult in the very near future.”
Values are changing, and figuring that you can just be the last organisation to extend a welcoming hand to employees who are or will be parents is not a smart bet.
What are your thoughts? Have you as an HR professional seen or been a part of an organisation that has great (or not-so-great) parental leave practices?