This week’s report about the rise in discrimination in the workplace against new and expectant mothers comes as no surprise to me. It probably didn’t surprise you either.
Unfortunately, though, this is not just a simple matter of recognising injustice and redressing the balance. I’m afraid it’s far more complicated than that – and goes deep into the very fabric of our society – not to mention biology and psychology.
And that means we’re going to have to have some potentially awkward, and unnervingly contentious conversations.
Returning to the workplace after having children is HARD. Waaaay harder than I thought it was as going to be.
It’s hard for everyone. (It’s clearly hardest – as the report points out – for those in low-paid jobs on zero hours contracts forced to go back before they or their babies are ready).
I naively thought I’d slip back into my work shoes and carry on pretty much where I’d left off. I forgot that my feet – quite literally – grew an entire size during my pregnancy and didn’t shrink back down. (Yes this is a thing). Anyway, for whatever reason – those work shoes didn’t fit quite as they had done before.
The truth of the matter is that whatever your role, whatever your level, whatever your industry, when you return you are NOT the same employee that left. You can’t be – because you’re fundamentally not the same person in the same place.
That doesn’t, by any means, take away your talent, experience or expertise. It doesn’t necessarily make you any worse at your job – it can in fact make you better if you get the chance to be better – but it certainly makes you different. And amongst other things, we need to talk honestly about that difference.
We need to talk about the fact that return to workers have new priorities and commitments. They may not have the hours to throw in for that big pitch or urgent deadline. They may not be able travel anymore. They may have to drop everything at a moments notice for a sick dependent. Their job – shock horror – may no longer be the be-all and end-all of their lives.
We need to talk about the UK’s prevalent long hours culture, and the level of commitment employers require and reward. That unwritten expectation that people will go above and beyond if they want to go far – which basically precludes primary carers.
We need to talk about what we can’t change – like it being women who physically have the babies, and then the boobs to feed them. Making them often, ergo, the primary carer.
We need to talk about why since legislation came in to allow parents to share parental leave, so few families have taken this option.
We need to talk about the cost, quality, and availability of childcare.
We need to talk about the lack of funded support services for new and expectant parents.
We need to talk about school hours and holidays and how that’s supposed to fit in with the expectation parents will work 9am-5pm +
We need to talk about the army of unpaid grandparents taking up the care slack and plugging the gaps in the system – and what on earth you do if you don’t have any.
We need to talk about the lack of part time roles or job shares at all levels, and across all kinds of industries. We need to talk about why it is so hard to excel in part time work, and advance a career.
We need to talk about why and how females – despite performing better than their male counterparts at school and university – face discrimination in the workplace even before they have children. Why they are paid and promoted less.
We need to talk about why girls are choosing subjects and careers that are ‘worth’ less and paid less than boys. (Why, for instance, having been instrumental in early computing, they are now under represented in the modern tech world).
We need to talk about the fact that in so many UK households the male still earns more than the female, making it financially sensible for her to make the career sacrifices for their family.
We need to talk about the reality that parenting is a choice which inherently involves sacrifices – of all kinds. That no one can have it all, and that ALL families have to juggle to find their balance – to keep all the balls in the air.
We have to talk about what some of those sacrifices really look like.
We need to talk about how much harder that balance is to achieve for single parent families. And why the majority of those single parents are women.
We need to talk about how such a big life change can change someone’s perspective, and with it their career aspirations. We need to talk about how that’s okay, too.
We need to talk about the impact sleep deprivation has on the cognitive functions, personal performance and even personalities of new (and old) parents.
We need to talk about the wider impact of parenthood on mums AND dads. We need to talk about hormones, postnatal depression and mental health.
We need to talk about why rearing children continues to be so undervalued in our society. We need to talk about attitudes to stay at home mums, to working mums, to mums on benefits, to young mums.
We need to talk about why as a society we SHOULD be collectively supporting the growth and development of the next generation – the workers (and carers!) of the future – by supporting their parents. (Because people clearly aren’t getting it).
We need to talk about the legislation and loopholes that are allowing – and indeed encouraging – employers to save money by avoiding their obligations to parents.
We need to talk about the fact that even organisations obeying the letter of the law still aren’t really supporting or empowering their female employees.
We need to talk about the fact that meeting maternity requirements can put small and even medium-sized enterprises under extreme pressure, and how that might be mitigated or subsidised.
Look, in short, this is not an easy subject. It IS quite an emotive one.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do believe the very first and most important step towards solutions must be just to talk about it, full stop.
This week’s report gives us that opportunity. And I’d really love to hear about your experiences.