Are motherhood and work compatible? The answer is yes – but not for everyone.
Wide variation in maternity leave policies across Europe, both at the national policy and individual employer level, can mean that new mothers have markedly different experiences when they return to work after having their baby.
The recently published Safe Motherhood Report found that pregnancy impacted working conditions for a significant proportion of women across Europe. The report explored the issue of work during and after pregnancy, seeking women’s perspectives on how their pregnancy had impacted their jobs and careers.
Over one-third of women said their pregnancy had hampered their advancement in their workplace, while 14 per cent said they felt actively discriminated against.
It was also seen that many women returned to work quite soon after giving birth, with more than 50 per cent returning to part-time or full-time work within three months of giving birth. In addition, a number of women reported changed conditions and/or difficulties upon their return to work.
The global picture
The US is one of the few countries across the world that do not guarantee paid maternity leave – other countries with no paid maternity policy include Papua New Guinea and Liberia. In Europe, each country has its own individual policy; Greece offers its mothers 43 weeks of leave, with pay totalling more than 50 per cent of average earnings, while new mothers in Germany, France, Austria and Spain are entitled to 14 weeks fully paid leave. In the UK, a mother is allowed up to 52 weeks of maternity leave but the first six weeks sees mothers receive 90 per cent of their average pre-tax weekly earnings, the following 33 weeks is capped at £140. In Ireland, the policy is maternity leave of 42 weeks, 26 of which are paid at a flat rate of €230 per week.
Paternity leave policy is becoming more common, although it is still not widespread. For example, in Finland, new fathers can take up to 42 days paid leave, and Ireland recently introduced legislation to allow for two weeks paid paternity leave for every new father. In Sweden, parents can take more than 51 weeks of leave with average payments of 61 per cent of their salary.
It has been well-documented, however, that many women do not take their full maternity leave entitlement, citing fears about job security and failure to progress. The narrative may be changing as companies realise the benefit of retaining their experienced workers.
Several large companies have in recent years introduced innovative maternity leave policies, particularly tech companies wishing to retain highly skilled and experienced female employees. In addition, many others have rolled out paternity leave, as the acknowledgment that a new arrival may require all hands on deck.
Last year, online programming behemoth Netflix announced their groundbreaking unlimited paid leave policy for new moms and dads, which invited them to take off “as much time as they want” in the year following the birth or adoption of a child. Software giant Microsoft also expanded its parental leave offering last year, announcing that all new mothers and fathers (through birth, adoption, or surrogacy) would receive 12 weeks of paid leave, while birth mothers would receive an additional eight weeks of maternity disability paid in full, for a total of 20 weeks.
In addition, Adobe doubled the paid maternity leave it grants employees. Tech giants Google and Facebook also have generous family leave policies, while Twitter offers one of the most generous paid maternity leaves, at 20 weeks, and for fathers and other non-birth parents, it offers 10 weeks.
A critical moment in women’s lives
Last year, multinational company Vodafone announced women working at all levels across Vodafone’s 30 operating companies in Africa, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and the US would be offered at least 16 weeks fully paid maternity leave, as well as full pay for a 30-hour week for the first six months after their return to work.
Global Organisation & People Development Director Sharon Doherty was one of the people that spearheaded the move within Vodafone to introduce a generous maternity leave package for its female employees.
She explained that the company has “ambitious” targets to ensure a certain percentage of their leadership population is women. A closer look at how they might achieve this meant looking at the specific needs of female employees.
“When we were looking at where we are today, and where we want to get to, very quickly we get into the different stages of women’s lives, and motherhood is often a critical moment for women. We did a deep dive in that moment and found that we were losing women, particularly on the return from maternity leave. Some of that was about not coming back, or coming back and then leaving in a shorter period than you would have expected,” she explains.
This prompted Vodafone to do some further analysis, with a view to offering not only a “good minimum standard” of maternity leave, but also an initiative based on the transition back to working full-time.
“Our logic was, yes, we need to make this short term investment, but when you really looked at the numbers, in the medium term it had a positive business impact. When you take into account rehiring and re-training, and the loss of experience, these were hidden costs that didn’t get picked up.”
An analysis by KPMG found that it would make sense financially for the company to invest in offering more paid maternity leave – Doherty explains that it was seen that there was a potential multi-billion pound benefit for the global economy, not just Vodafone, if maternity leave was looked at in a different light.
“Those were the drivers for us to think a little bit differently and a bit more radically in this area, and two years ago we decided to commence this policy.”
In addition, as one of the first organisations in the world to define a mandatory minimum maternity benefits standard, Vodafone are hoping that this encourages other employers to understand that this can have benefits for all stakeholders – employer, employee, families and society as a whole.
“We want send the right signals as well as practically put in place the things that help women. I would make the point that companies have a big responsibility in this and I think we have shown that we are up for that and we have shown leadership in this area. If you can prove that this different way of thinking actually has positive benefits, then I think other organisations who may not have thought about it, may become inquisitive and think about what they are doing in turn. Bigger companies can think in terms of billions, and frame world problems in a bigger way and that then catches people’s attention. So when you talk to other companies and to governments about the need to do things differently because it will have a positive impact on the economy then that gets people’s attention faster.”
The theme of the Safe Motherhood Week campaign this year is “Motherhood shapes our future. We all have the power to make it safe”.
Doherty agrees that generous maternity policies from large corporations such as Vodafone can have a positive societal effect, as well as benefits for the company and its female employees.
“All the statistics show that keeping women in employment has enormous economic benefits. Particularly when you look at the emerging markets, because when you look at how women spend their money, it’s on their families so therefore keeping women in employment is really important. The second point is that it is great that the mother, particularly in those countries where the policies weren’t as good before, can stay at home a little bit longer and have that transition back into the workplace. ”
The first weeks of motherhood are hugely demanding on every new mother, yet the Safe Motherhood Week report found that more than half of women surveyed had returned to work within three months of giving birth. Clearly some of this may be by choice, but for others it represents yet another factor that could hamper a woman’s wellbeing in the vulnerable weeks after a birth.
Across Europe there is still much to be done in terms of improving women’s rights when it comes to work and motherhood. But it appears that employers such as Vodafone are beginning to change the conversation around maternal rights and the need for adequate maternity leave.
The mother’s perspective
Over 1,700 employees have availed of the new maternity leave policy so far. Ilda Matabel, Vodacom Mozambique, has benefitted from Vodafone’s changed maternity leave policy. She says the extra paid maternity leave she has taken has made her, and her son, much happier.
“I am happy, my boy is happy and my family is even happier for having me at home to guarantee that our baby is strong and healthy. Let me say that out of the four kids I have, K’Angelo is the lucky one. Thanks to Vodacom and the four-month maternity policy, I am not just the mum, but his best friend, the person he sees before sleeping and when he wakes up. The one who feeds him and plays with him. What else would a baby needs to be happy and strong? We could not be happier.”