It's time to think differently about maternity leave
I often hear business owners say that maternity leave would be a nightmare for their business, and that women with children are unreliable. I hear it so often that I frequently ask myself what has been achieved by over 40 years of sex discrimination legislation.
Let me tell you about some people I know.
Rob had been employed for 2 years when, one day, he collapsed at work. He was diagnosed with a brain tumour which, thankfully, was operable, but it left him so exhausted he couldn’t stay awake more than a few hours, and it severely damaged his short term memory. He wasn’t allowed to drive for at least 6 months after the surgery. When he returned to work, after almost a year, he couldn’t manage full days, so he had to have a phased return to work. It’s been nearly 2 years since his first diagnosis, and he’s just been told that another tumour has been found.
Sanjay’s wife died a year ago, leaving him the sole carer of their two young children. He has a childminder, but if the childminder is sick, or the children are ill, he now has to take time off to look after them.
David had a heart attack, followed by heart surgery and 6 months off work. He can’t do the job he was originally employed to do because it will place too much strain on his heart, so his employer is trying to decide with him and his doctor what kind of work might be suitable. It’s taken weeks so far, and there is no sign of a solution yet.
What do these 3 men have in common?
They all work for companies who didn’t want to employ a woman of childbearing age because she might go off on maternity leave, which would be difficult to cover, and costly for the business.
So they employed men instead, because men don’t take long periods of time off work, or need short notice leave to deal with childcare emergencies. Until, of course, they do.
And those companies aren’t as rare as you might hope. According to a survey by employment lawyers Slater and Gordon, one in four UK managers would turn away a woman because she was a single parent, 29% because she had young children, and 28% because she was recently engaged or married.
And 37% would advertise roles as available to men only if the law allowed them. Not forgetting the 40% who thought men were just more dedicated to their jobs.
The thing about maternity leave is, you do, usually, have 3 or 4 months’ notice to plan for it. You usually have a rough idea when the maternity leave will end, and you can often get hints from the mother-to-be about whether she is likely to be looking to return to her current hours, or to ask for a reduction in working hours. You can, at least, put some contingency plans in place.
Unlike someone who goes off on long term sick leave, which can’t be anticipated or planned for, where there is usually no certainty about return dates and no idea whether someone will be able to return to their previous role.
And yes, I know that maternity pay can’t be claimed back. Neither can statutory sick pay. So that argument doesn’t work anymore either.
It’s time to think differently about maternity leave. I get that it’s inconvenient, and I get that it’s a hassle you could do without. But is it really worth excluding half the potential applicants for a job, just in case someone gets pregnant?
Especially when there is no guarantee that the men you recruit instead will stay the course either.
Life happens to all of us. Any of us could find ourselves physically unable to do the job we are employed to do, temporarily or permanently, for any number of reasons.
It doesn’t just happen to women.
It is getting harder and harder to find skilled employees – 91% of employers responding to the Open University Business Barometer survey said they had struggled to find skilled staff in the past 12 months. More people are in jobs than ever before, and they aren’t going to move unless you are going to make a substantially better offer. The days of low wages and a plentiful supply of labour are coming to an end.
It’s time to broaden your recruitment net, not narrow it. Time to rethink work, and what it means to be a “good” employee. Time to think differently about maternity leave and how we manage parents at work. Because in our lifetimes, the amount of time we spend having and looking after small children is really quite minimal. And the best employers will see that helping employees through this relatively short period, rather than penalising them, is the secret to attracting and retaining the best talent available.
After all, none of us would be here if our mothers hadn’t got pregnant.
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