Half of women fear having a baby will hurt their career

pregnant work
pregnant work Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Having a baby can be scary for a thousand different reasons, but the possibility that you could lose your job, or that your career will suffer, shouldn't be one of them. However, nearly half of all working women are nervous about how having a baby could affect their career, according to a PwC study, released recently.

"Taking time to talk: what has to change for women at work" showed women are more assured than ever before, with 82 per cent of women staying they felt confident in their ability to fulfil their career aspirations. But having a baby is still a massive obstacle for 42 per cent of women, who feel nervous about the impact it could have on their career.

Megan*, a successful senior marketing manager working in the resources industry, is one of those women.

"I have worked my bum off for the past 15 years to get where I am, and as much as I'd love to have a baby, I'm terrified of taking time off," she said. "Even three months is enough time for things to move on, for that Megan-sized gap in the office to be filled by someone else, and for them to forget I exist."

Megan and her husband have been together for eight years, and both come from large families.

"I would have loved to have a big family but I'm 37 and my clock is ticking, as my mother likes to remind me on a regular basis," she said. "I'll be lucky if I have one baby now – maybe two. But I don't want to sacrifice all I've achieved or lose momentum in my career that's now at a level I've worked so hard to get to."

Renee*, a mum of two and project officer in a logistics company, says Megan is right to worry.

"When my eldest was a baby, I took on a contract role because it was the only position I could find that offered the flexible hours I needed," she explained. "It went well and I had my contract renewed for another two years, but when I was on maternity leave with my youngest, my contract was cut short without explanation. I still had 15 months left and I was counting on being able to return. Instead I had to search for a job that would work for me with two children under three.

"I'm still looking," she said. "It's been four months and I'm not even close to finding a job yet."

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Professional Career Coach Donna Thistlethwaite from Career Vitality claims women are right to be concerned about the affect having a baby will have on their career.

"That has been the experience of many women to date," she says. "While we have made some progress, many of our organisations have systems, processes, customs and practices that are founded on the model of male primary breadwinner and female homemaker, including a preference for full-time hours, start/finish times, meeting start times, an expectation of being available out of hours, travel, out-of-hours networking/celebrations, spending 9am-5pm at the office.

"A lot of these requirements are very difficult to achieve and unappealing to a parent."

Ms Thistlethwaite says it's fantastic to see so many women committed to their careers but "the reality is that once baby comes along it is mum who ends up putting her career on ice for a period."

Many women fear discrimination if they seek flexibility or part-time hours, says Donna. "Some feel that they have no option but to work full-time to retain their position or to be promoted but it's not what they want."

There are measures mums-to-be can take, suggests Ms Thistlethwaite, to shore up their position before they go on maternity leave, and during the time they're away.

1.  Ensure your supervisor and management know who you are and what you contribute to the business. "Capture your achievements and discuss these with them both at performance reviews but also in day-to-day conversations," says Donna. "Know and communicate your strengths. Discuss your career aspirations with them."

2.  Work with management about what your role will be when you return, rather than being shoe-horned into a position you don't want. "Ideally the role should work for both the business and yourself and align to your strengths," says Donna.

3.  Offer options to management of how you can contribute after you have children, including the advantages of flexibility from the perspective of the business.

4.  Connect with other women in the organisation who are balancing work and family life to discuss strategies and learn from their experience.

5.  Discuss with them ways you and your partner can each engage in paid work while sharing care of the baby.

Ms Thistlethwaite also suggests staying in touch with your workplace while you're on leave, both formally and informally. Read any information they send you, and consider updating your training and skills if you have the capacity.

"Consider attending workplace events and/or training," suggests Donna. "Your network and professional development are critical for career management and it's easy to let these drop off during a period away from the workplace.

"Mums need to make sure they don't end up isolated. It can be lonely at home with a little person and often leads to a loss of confidence."

Ms Thistlethwaite says that, unfortunately, there are still plenty of employers out there who fall short on equal opportunity employment. "Unfortunately, it's difficult to prove, especially when it is often covert or a result of unconscious biases."

But it's not all doom and gloom.

"More organisations are offering flexibility to all employees which I think is part of the solution," says Ms Thistlethwaite. "Once we can normalise flexibility and normalise caring as both male and female 'work', greater equality will be achieved."

*Names have been changed at women's request.