I was intrigued to read an article that appeared recently in Personnel Today, the item was also discussed on the BBC Breakfast news programme.
“Women’s careers damaged by having babies despite equality laws” Personnel Today 30th November 2009
My initial response- “well no surprises there then”. Having taken up to a year out for each new arrival, it is inevitable that the world of work will have moved on, time is needed to re-adjust, learn new skills, and get up to speed with new ways of working, new projects and so on. It all takes time.
Then the reality creeps in, your already decimated finances take an even greater hit, you’ve slipped backwards in the salary stakes as others who didn’t have maternity leave move onwards and upwards. I needn’t go on; it’s well documented.
What I really wanted to write about here are the hidden horrors of returning to work after maternity leave, much harder to quantify, but I am willing to bet have a greater contributory effect to many mothers decisions to give up work altogether, or to take on less well paid and less skilled, less stressful work, resulting in huge opportunity cost to the economy.
The article refers to mothers surveyed stating that they found returning to work “hard” or “very hard”, and the interview on the BBC looked at cases of discrimination taken to Employment Tribunal, but the inevitable focus was on calculated lost earnings. I’ll bet that those mums who said it was hard were referring to something else altogether. Toxic Management.
Let me share with you the experiences of a good friend of mine, Jenny.
Jenny worked in a Project Office of a Civil Service Department in a Junior Management position prior to the birth of her baby. Critical project dates coincided with expected date that Maternity Leave would begin, but a dedicated high performer, Jenny put in the hours to ensure that all was complete before she began her maternity leave, blissfully carrying on unaware of the true extent that having her baby would change her life. Colleagues were supportive and her line manager verbosely grateful for her achievements before going off on “her extended break”.
Jenny and her boss (male – although she never was sure if that was relevant or not) had worked well together, a good team, high achievers.
The only thing that Jenny didn’t deliver on time was her baby, arriving nearly two weeks late.
Like many new mums, her new arrival caused some fairly extensive soul searching about work life balance and the needs of her baby. She decided to request a return to work part time.
Until Jenny made the phone call to request a meeting to discuss her return, she had had no contact that had been instigated from work. No one had called her to check in with her, keep her up to date or just to say hi.
The response by her boss to her request was “ugh, I just knew that this would happen! Well I don’t know we’ll have to see if we can keep Karen (backfilling Jenny’s post for Maternity Cover) on to cover the load”.
Jenny’s confused feelings of anger, embarrassment, and bizarrely disloyalty led to the actual return being a very tumultuous time for her. In addition to the normal feelings of distress at leaving her baby, Jenny felt about as welcome as a gatecrasher at a wedding. Her new job title might be best described as “sweeping up” the tasks that the now Full Time Karen, couldn’t cover in a “normal” working week.
On her arrival at the office on the first day, having just left her baby with a virtual stranger, she found that her desk had been given over to Karen, as she was “the full timer”. Karen, a perfectly lovely person, through no fault of her own was suddenly potentially an object of resentment.
In fact, there was no desk at all for Jenny. By the end of the first day a desk that was found from storage somewhere was haphazardly bolted onto the existing desk configuration, a PC was cobbled together from various odd parts lying around the department. The desk, in its precarious, slightly on a limb position led all visitors to the office to think that Jenny was the office receptionist and experience high levels of interruptions to her work.
In the weeks that followed Jenny endured frequent remarks about part time workers; both with reference to the things that she clearly couldn’t have known about because they happened on the days she wasn’t there, but also when she left work at her correct finishing time, whereas in the past she would have worked on as long as needed into the evening to get tasks done.
It must be noted that the work of the office, whilst important to the organisation, was not going to stop the world turning if tasks were left to wait until the next day.
It also became apparent that the line manager was playing Jenny and Karen off against each other. They never did get to the root cause of this, but any desire to create a negative competitiveness backfired, once they realised what was happening it served only to cement a friendship that has lasted years.
After several weeks of feeling undermined, confused, and extremely frustrated, both Jenny and Karen supported each other to take action. They confronted the line manager together. It completely backfired, Senior Managers supported him, couldn’t believe that a well respected manager could be making two colleagues feel so very miserable, de-motivated, bullied.
Needless to say, they both found other jobs, leaving a huge hole in the department and those oh so important delivery deadlines weren’t met again for a very long time.
It must be said that Jenny did change her terms and conditions, by reducing her hours to part time the employer was under no obligation to return her to her original position, only to find like work of the same grade.
However its unimaginative, unsupportive attitude to someone who had been loyal and previously felt valued as a team member led to damage to the individual through their loss of confidence, and probably therefore an impact on the rate at which Jenny was able to progress in her career later, wasting much time rebuilding confidence and utilising the skills and capabilities she had acquired.
The ultimate loss though was to the organisation;
They lost their investment in a significant amount of training and development that they had made in Jenny, including a professional qualification which was achieved the year before her baby was born.
They lost the future hard work and commitment that she would have put into the job, and did indeed deliver – to another employer, when her child was just a little older.
Their reputation was tarnished in ways that they’ll never be able to calculate, so affected by her experience, for quite some time afterwards, Jenny was unable to smile and say “fine” to the polite enquiry from numerous friends, family and acquaintances– “so how’s the return to work been for you?”
At a time when new mums feel particularly vulnerable, keen to fit back into the adult world, and frankly hold it all together, what is supposed to be one of the best times of your life is undoubtedly for many, the worst.
Jane Pound MCIPD
This article is the view of the author and in no way represents the views or policy of the CIPD.