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What women want – when returning to work

By Kim Fischer - 18 January 2016 14

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I have found that there is no more personally or professionally challenging period than the switch to becoming a mother. Almost all women I know under 40 entered the workforce with the expectation that they would have a career their whole life. The median (average) age of mothers at the time of their first child has been rising, from a low of 25.4 years in 1971 to just above 30 years old today.

The result is that women get 10-15 years to build a professional career and then hit the whirlwind of parenthood. This is difficult both for employers and employees because it is around the point where many women are becoming supervisors and managers.

Maternity leave and return to work provisions are critical for ensuring women aren’t left worse off financially. But the disruption to a woman’s professional career path is harder to avoid.

In many respects, women in Canberra are lucky: the public service is constantly reorganising in response to political and policy needs. This makes it better equipped than most other organisations to handle staff taking extended periods of leave and then returning them to a similar or improved role. But this is the exception rather than the norm. Stories of women being sidelined from their existing role due to organisational restructures, or being pressured to return earlier than they would otherwise wish are frequent.

Nearly 1 in 4 women return to work to keep their job or because their employer requested it (25%). This figure is nearly double the number who returned to work for purely financial reasons (15%).

Even more mothers return to work because they want to stay in touch with the workforce that – until recently – was their life’s focus. 40% of women return to work to maintain their self-esteem, maintain their career or skills, or simply for more adult interaction and mental stimulation. In my experience, if you spend more than 12 months out of the workforce you begin to worry about whether you still have the ‘skills’ and ‘ability’ needed when you return to the workforce.

Many women also face the problem of finding a valued role that is part-time or has flexible working hours. While only 25% of mothers in families with one child work part-time, this rises to 70% for mothers who have two or more children. This rise is partly driven by necessity as children reach school age and require drop-off and pickup during business hours.

Under the Fair Work Act 2009, employees who have been employed for at least 12 months in their current role have the legal right to request flexible working arrangements. But frankly, far too many organisations are not well-equipped to deal with employees who don’t want to work standard full-time hours. There are far fewer part-time roles advertised, and most of these are low skill or low paid. Even if you do secure a part-time role, there is often an implicit (and sometime explicit) discriminatory attitude against part-time workers who seek promotion.

The perverse result is that women have an incentive to work hard and get promoted into the full-time job that they want before having children. They must then turn around and request part-time work from their employer, accepting the fact that they will be stuck in that role for quite a few years.

Unfortunately, this very pragmatic approach entrenches the stereotype that mothers exploit their entitlements and cost employers money. But women who weren’t lucky or forward-thinking enough to be able to achieve a good work situation before having kids can find returning to work very difficult and stressful.

Managers need to be trained in how to make part-time, offsite, and staff with irregular hours valuable members of their teams. Organisations also need better acceptance that managers can be in charge of teams without seeing them face-to-face at all times.

I think we can do better to satisfy the various needs of employees.

What do you think?

Kim Fischer is an ACT Labor candidate for the seat of Ginninderra in the 2016 ACT Legislative Assembly election.

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14 Responses to
What women want – when returning to work
miz 10:23 am 24 Jan 16

The ideal, in our newly ‘agile’ world, would be to change the working norm of long hours in the office.

Parents with dependent children – or, can I just add, people with elderly, unwell parents or other caring duties! -have to undertake ridiculous and unfair convolutions to manage their joint care and work responsibilities, to try and conform to this norm.

Despite progress getting flexible work entitlements on paper, for example in the APS, careers tend to stagnate while a person is part time, working from home or taking a fair bit of unexpected leave. Not ‘being there’ unfortunately simply means you are actually not there when stuff happens, not there to supervise others etc . . . and other people get noticed and progressed instead. And the people in the office are continually getting the message that the part time person is ‘not there’ and someone else has to do cover those duties. Personally I think there should be more job sharing, so this aspect at least is avoided.

I guess this whole problem just becomes so large that many women decide (on an individual basis, though it is so common as to appear en masse) to ‘settle’ for an ‘OK’ level so they can actually access part time entitlements etc. In other words, they (understandably) prioritise their family responsibilities. It’s just too hard to fight the system. They feel as if they have failed, but the system has actually failed them.

There are some men who access part time entitlements, but very few in the scheme of things – fathers cannot breastfeed so it’s pretty much a given that the first few months at least are important for mother and child for this key (though often devalued) purpose. But I often wonder why it is almost always newly returned mothers who are then ‘expected’ to take the day off when a child is too unwell for childcare.

I agree with Michele that caring work at home should still be recognised as work – it’s darn hard work! – even if not formally paid and therefore generally ignored by economists. We have to try to return the pendulum back to thinking of ourselves as a society of people, not an economy of individuals as commodities.

OpenYourMind 9:23 pm 23 Jan 16

flitness said :

Being in my 30s and about to go off on my first maternity leave, I am one of those in the camp of being terrified of the effects on my career. I have invested so much time and passion getting to the management position I’m in, I’m now facing the reality I’ll be lucky to get back in to the APS, let alone be a manager again. I know I am so lucky to have maternity leave, that my non-ongoing contract will cover 3 months before it ends and I’m unemployed again. I am very thankful about the fact I get to keep an income for some time. But that’s my career frozen or gone and then the guilt trip I get from so many people who keep telling me that “mother” is my career now doesn’t help. The idea of staring at the bottom of the career ladder again is equal parts terrifying and frustrating. But I can’t seem to convince anyone to take on a pregnant worker permanently, no matter how good my resume is, so that’s my reality.

And I get the gendered comments, but my husband can take a month off and go back to work. I physically won’t be able to, you have to take 6 weeks off from the estimate date to begin with. Then I’m looking at 4-6 months off work. Women generally have to take that time off, can’t get around it. While flexibility should definitely be for all primary carers, the one giving birth is always going to be at more of a disadvantage, at least for the first year. I don’t know about your career, but 6 months out of mine and you can be years behind.

Understand your circumstances, but I don’t entirely agree that women have to take all that time off. Obviously if there’s a c-section or other complications, it’s different, but I did the stay at home Dad thing and we used expressed milk etc. We only have one child, but I can safely say that neither of our careers were drastically affected in the long term, so there is some hope! Where it gets really tough is when there are multiple kids, little grandparent backup and a series of illnesses. That’s really tough.

tooltime 12:01 am 23 Jan 16

You’ve never owned or managed a private business, have you Kim?

Employees generally are clueless to the true labour costs and risks assumed by small to medium enterprises wth every new hire. (I’m kinda stating the obvious here, but bear with me…) The idea of the business owner paying for a employees family planning decisions, and for an additional hire to cover maternity leave absences – are all additional costs borne by the employer (and taxpayers for that matter…)

My advice to Canberra women would be if your thinking of family planning, get yourself into the APS. It’s doubtful you’ll find conditions this favourable privately, unless you are very highly regarded in your profession…

gooterz 9:49 pm 22 Jan 16

flitness said :

Being in my 30s and about to go off on my first maternity leave, I am one of those in the camp of being terrified of the effects on my career. I have invested so much time and passion getting to the management position I’m in, I’m now facing the reality I’ll be lucky to get back in to the APS, let alone be a manager again. I know I am so lucky to have maternity leave, that my non-ongoing contract will cover 3 months before it ends and I’m unemployed again. I am very thankful about the fact I get to keep an income for some time. But that’s my career frozen or gone and then the guilt trip I get from so many people who keep telling me that “mother” is my career now doesn’t help. The idea of staring at the bottom of the career ladder again is equal parts terrifying and frustrating. But I can’t seem to convince anyone to take on a pregnant worker permanently, no matter how good my resume is, so that’s my reality.

And I get the gendered comments, but my husband can take a month off and go back to work. I physically won’t be able to, you have to take 6 weeks off from the estimate date to begin with. Then I’m looking at 4-6 months off work. Women generally have to take that time off, can’t get around it. While flexibility should definitely be for all primary carers, the one giving birth is always going to be at more of a disadvantage, at least for the first year. I don’t know about your career, but 6 months out of mine and you can be years behind.

Being a manager level and non ongoing doesn’t seem to be the norm as far as I’m aware in the APS.

flitness 8:00 pm 21 Jan 16

Being in my 30s and about to go off on my first maternity leave, I am one of those in the camp of being terrified of the effects on my career. I have invested so much time and passion getting to the management position I’m in, I’m now facing the reality I’ll be lucky to get back in to the APS, let alone be a manager again. I know I am so lucky to have maternity leave, that my non-ongoing contract will cover 3 months before it ends and I’m unemployed again. I am very thankful about the fact I get to keep an income for some time. But that’s my career frozen or gone and then the guilt trip I get from so many people who keep telling me that “mother” is my career now doesn’t help. The idea of staring at the bottom of the career ladder again is equal parts terrifying and frustrating. But I can’t seem to convince anyone to take on a pregnant worker permanently, no matter how good my resume is, so that’s my reality.

And I get the gendered comments, but my husband can take a month off and go back to work. I physically won’t be able to, you have to take 6 weeks off from the estimate date to begin with. Then I’m looking at 4-6 months off work. Women generally have to take that time off, can’t get around it. While flexibility should definitely be for all primary carers, the one giving birth is always going to be at more of a disadvantage, at least for the first year. I don’t know about your career, but 6 months out of mine and you can be years behind.

Michele the Celebran 5:09 pm 21 Jan 16

… When returning to PAID work …

Masquara 4:01 pm 19 Jan 16

Charlotte Harper said :

Hi, Masquara, we have hired a regular Opposition writer. Former Liberal MLA Greg Cornwall writes for us on Tuesdays (will be posting this week’s shortly). I am keen to find a regular columnist who from the Greens’ side too, and have reached out to some potentials with no luck so far, will keep trying.

Great! Here’s to a feisty election year.

HenryBG 3:02 pm 19 Jan 16

gooterz said :

APS is good that it allows both parents flexability to parent. .

It does offer some flexibility, however by and large there is no night shift available in the APS.

When my post-baby family resumed normal operations as a 2-income family (and let’s face it, the primary driver to go back to work isn’t “self-esteem” or “ambition”, it’s about paying the bills), I was able to swap shifts with my colleagues and work exclusively on night shift, so my partner handed over the toddlers at 8:30am upon my return home from work so we were able to both work without consigning our children to the massive developmental handicap that is represented by dumping them in childcare for almost 10 hours per day.

Charlotte Harper 2:28 pm 19 Jan 16

Hi, Masquara, we have hired a regular Opposition writer. Former Liberal MLA Greg Cornwall writes for us on Tuesdays (will be posting this week’s shortly). I am keen to find a regular columnist who from the Greens’ side too, and have reached out to some potentials with no luck so far, will keep trying.

pink little birdie 9:34 am 19 Jan 16

I think there are a lot of small businesses in Canberra who deal quite well with the parenting responiblities of both Genders.

My SIL’s brother takes 2 days off each week to look after the kids and then picks up weekends while his wife is home (he’s a self employed brickie). My SIL only works a couple of days a week doing book keeping and can arrange to do it later in the day if needed.. The business doesn’t need a full time book keeper.
There seems to be an almost untapped market for admin jobs where it’s only needed a couple of days each week which is win for parents and businesses.

Canberra wise I have only heard a few horror stories from largish constrution companies about maternity leave. To be fair though all the people I know who work retail or hopsitality have tended to quit work completely at about the 6 months pregnancy mark.

Masquara 9:59 pm 18 Jan 16

Since it’s an election year, Riotact, can you please feature a regular Opposition writer? You have Labor and the Sex Party covered. Not sure whether you feature a Green regularly. Many thanks!

OpenYourMind 8:02 pm 18 Jan 16

Great post. However, I find it a little surprising that you have chosen to use such gender un-neutral language. You can’t expect things to change if you are locking language into the past. How about instead of women returning to work you say parents returning to work and that way you include the (albeit fewer) men who have also taken a pause in their career to care for their young children.

gooterz 4:56 pm 18 Jan 16

Nothing in here specific to women. But just parents in general.

APS is good that it allows both parents flexability to parent. As evidenced by the education outcomes of ACT children.

It should be seen that parents cost workplaces money but it should also be shown that both genders should be taking these up. Until then men don’t realise what their missing and continue to treat women just as the carers. If both parents were encouraged to parent you’d see much better conditions for both genders.

crackerpants 12:46 pm 18 Jan 16

Thank you for writing this piece Kim, you raise issues that many of us have struggled with (and it’s not over yet!).

Unfortunately I don’t think it will prompt much constructive discussion here – there will be a lot of “in my day women stayed at home”, “maybe if people didn’t buy iPads and cars, mothers wouldn’t have to work”, “mothers drive their kids around in CARS and I don’t approve of that” etc etc.

There will be a lot of ill feeling directed at working mums in general because we get paid by the government to have kids, and expect employers to bend over backwards to accommodate us. Young people get angry at working mums because they have to cover for them every time a child gets sick (because working mums haven’t already done the same thing in their first 10-20 years in the workforce, and young workers will never have their own families when they’re older), and older workers get disgruntled because “in my day”.

I’m very, very lucky to be in the APS. so each of my three transitions back to work have been pretty smooth, but by the same token, I joined the APS in the first place because of the conditions offered – generally, and to working mums. I’m fortunate to be part of a happy, accommodating team with a “swings and roundabouts” approach to work, and I have fought the good fight to be able to log in remotely as needed, which works well for me and my team. I work in a department where the majority of the workforce is female, so generally speaking it’s a great environment for working mums.

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