I was promoted while on maternity leave – this shouldn't be exceptional

Negotiating decent maternity leave

Sydney mother Anouk Sireude is part of a new generation of women achieving flexible maternity arrangements with work.

Two days before I gave birth to my first child, I was promoted. She was 13 days past her due date and for a while there, I thought the two events may have happened on the same day.

Obviously I was on maternity leave by this point, but the timing had a nice serendipity to it. My daughter arrived after a particularly busy and gruelling time at work, and the promotion felt like the culmination of a significant period in my career.

Since talking to friends and reflecting on support for pregnant women and new mothers in the modern Australian workplace however, I realise I am exceptionally fortunate.

Katie Robertson and her daughter
Katie Robertson and her daughter 

By Australian standards, my workplace has an excellent parental leave policy – the product of a strong union and a supportive attitude amongst key senior leaders at the firm – and pregnancy is not viewed as a barrier to career progression; I was one of four staff members promoted this year while on parental leave.

It was my male boss (and now CEO) who encouraged me to apply for promotion, around the same time I told him I was expecting. He was genuinely excited about the arrival of my baby. He has three daughters of his own and at one point took a year's break from work to raise his first daughter while his wife returned to her successful career.

He talks about this time as one of the best and most valuable in his life. Another senior female colleague took me out for coffee shortly after I announced my pregnancy and shared her personal insights and tips with me about balancing motherhood and a dynamic career. She was honest about the fact it isn't easy and all workplaces including ours have room for improvement. She also encouraged me to take the full 12 months parental leave I have available to me and enjoy this time watching my child grow.

I do not take this advice for granted; law is a cut-throat industry in which lawyers brag about their long hours and time spent in the office over weekends and public holidays. Years ago, a friend who worked at a top tier corporate firm told me about a colleague of hers who had returned to work full time just two weeks after giving birth. This was what was expected of her.

Having recently experienced the sleep deprived haze of the two week mark with my daughter, I can't physically imagine doing this, let alone working in a firm where it was expected of me in order to maintain both my rung on the ladder and respect amongst my colleagues.

In recent years, as friends have become pregnant I've been shocked by the lack of entitlements and protections workplaces provide. One friend discovered that her organisation had no parental leave policy in existence, so she was forced to negotiate with her boss individually. Despite being a strong and intelligent woman with a legal background, she understandably found this process awkward and intimidating. She observed to me afterwards how difficult it must be for some of her less assertive colleagues.

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Another friend felt forced to conceal her pregnancy from her boss beyond the customary 12-week period, until it was confirmed that her contract would be extended. She was genuinely concerned her employer would not renew her position if they knew she was pregnant.

Reflecting on these experiences with my girlfriends afterwards, it quickly became apparent that decent maternity leave and job security when embarking on the adventure of parenthood was something we'd naively taken for granted as modern working women.

It's 2017 and professionally, women have come a long way. We now outnumber men in a number of industries previously dominated by men. We are the first generation of women to be given the full career opportunities (at least in theory) that our mothers and grandmothers never had. And we are dominating.

Yet while we outnumber men in a number of professions, women are also drastically under-represented in senior leadership positions across the board. Until women can access reasonable, well supported paid parental leave – and advance their careers at the same pace as their male colleagues regardless of career breaks to raise children, we will continue to face this discrimination.

Katie Robertson is Senior Associate in Maurice Blackburn's Social Justice Law Practice.

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