When work and motherhood collide

"Discrimination in relation to pregnancy and return to work after parental leave is a continuing problem in Australia" ...
"Discrimination in relation to pregnancy and return to work after parental leave is a continuing problem in Australia" ... Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James 

When a new baby arrives we usually expect to lose a bit of sleep. What we may not expect to lose is our job. 

A recent UK survey found that discrimination against working mothers is still a significant problem. The survey discovered that up to 15 per cent of women lost their job while on maternity leave, 11 per cent were replaced by their maternity leave cover, and almost 20 per cent were refused the right to work part time.  

Natalie James, Fair Work Ombudsman, explains that legislation in Australia is designed to guard against such discrimination. “Under the Fair Work Act, it’s unlawful to discriminate against employees on the grounds of pregnancy and family and carer responsibilities,” she says. 

“It’s also unlawful not to allow an employee to return to their previous position, or another mutually agreed position, on return from maternity leave.” 

Despite this protection afforded to working parents, there’s strong anecdotal evidence that discrimination is still an issue in Australia. With women continuing to take primary responsibility for childcare, they can find themselves facing redundancy, demotion and resistance to flexible working arrangements, seemingly as a direct result of their need to balance work with the care of children. 

Sarah Wardle* was on maternity leave from her executive assistant role when an HR representative from the financial services firm she worked for called to ask if she’d be interested in taking voluntary redundancy. “I had worked for the company for 10 years so it came as a complete surprise. I’d given no indication that I wanted to leave and was fully committed to returning to work,” she says. 

Although the offer was positioned as a choice, Wardle believes there was nothing ‘voluntary’ about it, saying, “The HR representative warned me that redundancies would be happening and I’d get a better deal if I took voluntary redundancy now.”  Wardle later discovered that three other women from her company, all with very young children, received the same offer. 

Similarly, Julie Hamilton* was made redundant from her senior sales role within a major investment firm. Like two colleagues before her, Hamilton lost her job shortly after the birth of her first child. Despite being the top performer in her division, Hamilton believes certain individuals within the company were dismissive towards women who wanted flexible working arrangements after having a baby.

“My manager made it very clear that he felt women couldn’t return to a sales environment part-time. Although I’d established strong relationships with my clients over eight years, and could easily manage their accounts during a flexible working week, it just wasn’t considered to be viable.” 

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These are not isolated incidents. The number of complaints made by women who feel they are the victims of workplace discrimination has prompted the federal government to ask the Australian Human Rights Commission to conduct an inquiry into worker rights. 

Led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, the inquiry will assess the “prevalence, nature and consequences of discrimination relating to pregnancy at work and return to work after parental leave”. 

Broderick says the research is an important undertaking. ‘The number of complaints received by the [Human Rights] Commission and Fair Work Australia in these areas indicates that discrimination in relation to pregnancy and returning to work after parental leave is a continuing problem in Australia,” she says. 

With the inquiry results not due until May 2014, it remains unclear as to why discrimination is an issue. Australia has an acknowledged talent shortage and a low percentage of women engaged in the workforce (particularly in the 25-54 age bracket). It would seem the latter is the perfect solution to the former. 

Unfortunately, stigma surrounding women’s ability to fully commit to the workplace may linger. Despite evidence that women who work flexible, part-time hours are almost 5 per cent more productive than their full-time counterparts, the attitude that mothers are a burden rather than a benefit is likely to exist in some companies. 

Martin Davies* is a senior manager for a private healthcare organisation. With a young family, Davies fully understands the importance of a supportive working environment for parents. However, he says the call to retrench or restructure is a commercial decision, and that means working mothers can be targeted.  

“Unless her skillset is unique, why would a business keep or promote the employee who takes maternity leave and requires temporary cover for maybe one or two years?” he asks.

“When she returns there’s every chance she won’t commit to long hours.  She may need to take extra sick days to care for her child and will disrupt the organisation all over again with possibly the second and third child.” 

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James stresses that companies will face punitive action if they are found to discriminate in this way. “We want employers to be aware that this type of conduct is unlawful and that serious penalties can apply,” she says.  

James recommends that working women who have a family or are thinking about starting one familiarise themselves with the current legislation. “We want employees to be aware of what their rights are so they can recognise unlawful and discriminatory treatment when it occurs and come to the Fair Work Ombudsman for help. “ 

Of course, there are companies that do provide genuine opportunity and support for employees who are pregnant, on maternity leave or juggling the demands of work and family life. 

After having twins, Catherine Gunning took two year’s maternity leave from her General Counsel role at Infigen Energy. Although Gunning was keen to return to work, she knew she would struggle to commit to the long hours her old role demanded.  

Instead, Gunning asked Infigen to create a new role that would utilise her skill set, but on a more flexible basis. “Infigen were totally supportive and worked hard to build a role that would meet their commercial needs as well as my needs as both a professional and parent,” she says. 

Gunning believes open communication is the key. “I was honest about what I could bring to the new role and Infigen were honest about what they expected.  It’s made for a positive working partnership where my company still sees me as an asset, and I still get to spend the time I need with my children.”

For help or information, contact Fair Work Infoline on 13 13 94 or visit www.fairwork.gov.au

*names have been changed