Return from maternity leave: The new normal

Me on my first day back at work after maternity leave. There was a LOT of concealer involved.

 Thousands of us do it every year and thousands more  have been here before us. We trudge, skip or sail back  into the office after between six and ten months at  home, learning how to cope with our new role in life.  But going back to work is yet another change of identity  for a new mother. We have been young professionals…  we have been new mothers… now, we are expected to be  seasoned hands in both worlds. No longer “young” in a  professional context and no longer entirely “new” to  mothering, we are now part of that frazzled middle  ground that makes people in their 30s and 40s the most  stressed, tired and frantic jugglers of all.

While many of us are thrilled to be back to (the new) normal, unfortunately, for many others, it’s not that simple. A case reported just last week of an army captain who was excluded from promotion because she was on maternity leave is an extreme but sadly not that unusual example of how the simple, ordinary act of having children leaves women at a terrible disadvantage on their return to work.

Captain Diane Byrne was awarded over €800,000 in damages and loss of earnings when the judge in her case ruled that being passed over for promotion meant she was reasonably likely to leave the defence forces, which she did. During her leave, four of Captain Byrne’s male colleagues were promoted, and she was transferred without her knowledge to a new base of operations. The judge ruled that she was entitled automatically under her contract to be part of this promotional process; instead, she wasn’t even informed it was taking place. She was also found to be placed under undue stress throughout her pregnancy.

Most women – and probably a few men – in the applicable age range will be nodding knowingly at this. It’s happened to so many people we know. The retail worker, sacked at the first hint of pregnancy; the high level executive transferred to “less onerous duties” (ie out of the promotional lineup) upon returning from maternity leave; or the woman who is told upon returning that her role is now redundant.

When we covered this topic on the show last week – after I’d been back myself a bare two weeks – the responses were even worse than I expected. One lady told us how she had returned to a job she loved to find that, when she’d taken extended leave due to her child being unwell, the boss had only then decided to replace her, with a less qualified man… who became her boss upon her return. He later confessed to her that he had been instructed to make her life a misery so that she would leave; an exceptionally clear case of constructive dismissal.

A number of women contacted us to say they’d been made redundant upon returning to work, something that seems more common in retail. Holistic therapist Pat Murphy worked as a window dresser for a retail chain and adored her job, but returned after having her first child to find she no longer had a place in the company. She believes now it was a blessing in disguise, which enabled her to set up her own business.

“One week after returning to work, I was informed that I was being made redundant. I know that it’s the position rather than the person who’s made redundant but it’s difficult not to take it personally.

“At the time, it seemed like the worst news possible but it was actually the best experience for me because I set up my own holistic health and yoga business utilising the skills I’d built up behind the scenes. And the retail business went bust a couple of years later!”

“Redundancy can be extremely stressful, however it may also be a blessing,” she says.

Luckily for Pat, her situation worked out, but for many women the return to a workplace where they can be marginalised, alienated or just not taken as seriously as before is jarring.

The most recent Irish research on pregnancy and the workplace was carried out in 2011, by the now-defunct Equality Authority, and the figures could surely do with updating following a recession that deeply impacted those in casual, part-time or contract employment, most of whom are women.

That research found that five per cent of women who were working when pregnant were dismissed, while up to 30 per cent reported unfair treatment including being given unsuitable work, being passed over for promotion or bonuses and negative comments from managers or colleagues. Unfair treatment was, perhaps not surprisingly, most common in the retail and wholesale sectors. Tellingly, 72 per cent of women who experienced negative treatment while pregnant didn’t go further with their complaint. Almost a quarter (24%) of women returning after maternity leave felt their promotional prospects had decreased.

Women who are pregnant or have just had a child are in a uniquely vulnerable situation and employers know it. They are reluctant to rock the boat because a visibly pregnant woman is unlikely to get a new job, and once they do have a child, the price of childcare is a sobering reality check to anyone considering throwing in the towel. Get a reputation, meanwhile, as a ‘troublesome’ woman – particularly in a small industry – and your prospects are sunk.

Ireland has favourable maternity leave conditions compared to our US neighbours – six months paid maternity leave with the option to take a further four more months unpaid, plus the option of taking parental leave while your child is young. It might come as a surprise, though, that we rank 23rd out of 24 European countries for “decently paid” maternity leave – considered to be 66% of the mother’s normal earnings. The average length of maternity leave across Europe, meanwhile, is 19 months.  Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be much demand in Ireland for longer paid maternity leave – perhaps we are aware that being out longer might work against us even more.

The addition of sensible, supportive concepts such as the UK model of ‘keeping in touch days’, where women can return to work for a few days here and there during their maternity leave, would make all the difference. However, the recent addition of paternity leave is the biggest step in the right direction – we’ll be truly on a level playing field the day an employer has to give a man a paid six months “off” to rear his child.

First published in the Evening Echo.


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