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Could tech companies rip up the rule book on maternity leave?

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Romanie Thomas is founder and CEO of recruitment service Juggle.Jobs, which matches members to companies by considering culture as well as skills. The firm is on a mission to ensure 50% of business leaders are women in 10 years. In this article, she explores the thorny issue of maternity leave.

Hiring and retaining high-quality senior women is a very hot topic. The government has already intervened at board level, and is rumoured to be doing the same at executive level, and gender diversity has been shown to be particularly important for the bottom line in tech companies. Consequently a spotlight is being shone on traditionally “female” topics, accompanied by fresh thinking.

With women representing 47% of the labour market and over 85% of those having children at some point during their careers, maternity leave is one of those topics and we look at how effective the current policies are to achieving gender parity and how the tech industry can lead these efforts.

The Liberal Democrats Manifesto: what does it mean for UK tech?

Women’s future and current impact:

Yet:

Technology

Many tech businesses took the lead when it came to parental rights. Companies like Google, Netflix, Spotify and Facebook not only ripped up the rule book, they created their own. In addition to offering paid leave for parents-to-be, Facebook (among others) fund IVF and egg-freezing treatments in an effort to both recruit and retain talented employees, particularly women.

In a refreshing change to the ‘women are the caregivers’ dialogue, Mark Zuckerberg took two months’ leave after the birth of his daughter, a move that signalled to both his employees and the world at large that the dynamic is shifting, albeit slowly.

A poisoned chalice

However there remains strong sentiment among women that taking maternity leave, especially the full year, harms career prospects. Data collected about the negative treatment of women both during leave and on returning to work, coupled with statistics on the gender pay gap and the number of females in executive level positions, support the notion that this is more than a feeling. Women are quite literally charged for becoming mothers with their pay reducing by 4% per child, taking the saying “children are expensive” to a new level. Pay for men increases on average by 6% when they become fathers.

A 2014 study of 500 managers, found a third overlooked women of childbearing age during their recruitment process. Some 25% said they would rather hire a man to avoid issues of maternity leave and child care and 44% were concerned about the financial burden. In their view, while an employee’s maternity pay can be reclaimed, this does not cover the time spent interviewing, training and supporting cover staff nor reintegrating and retraining women once they return to work.

It is the collateral costs that fuel the perceived complexities and create a hiring system bias. Maternity leave in its current form has had the unintended consequence of making women less competitive in the job market. Yet women’s untapped labour potential could contribute over £12tn to the economy and businesses with more women in senior roles outperform those that don’t. Even to those with no moral interest in achieving gender parity, overlooking women of a “certain age” seems silly.

Smarter working

Progressive countries with strong economies are moving away from “maternity leave” to “parental leave”. Acknowledging the physical impact of children on women, men do not have equal rights, but shifting the attention away from gender and towards enabling professionals to work on their terms during the childcare years and beyond, is becoming central in a parental leave solution for modern living. It also prevents employees from feeling disconnected from their jobs – an issue that is particularly prevalent for anyone returning to work after an extended period.

  • A fifth of fully paid “parental leave” is allocated to Swedish fathers allowing for bonding and partners to return to paid work.
  • Mothers in Belgium can opt for eight months of part-time leave rather than 15 weeks of full-time.
  • In Iceland, parents receive three months each in leave and decide how best to split the final three months of their nine-month paid parental leave. They cannot transfer their allocated three months to ensuring responsibilities are fairly split.

Companies like Microsoft were key in driving the change from the standard 9-to-5 and advised others to follow suit. Tech companies once again have an opportunity to rip up the rule book and lead the change. The initial costs of parental leave are nominal when it comes to the long-term benefits and once companies start investing in women fully, it will be worth it for everyone.

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