'Maternity promotion', not maternity leave, argues fair work advocate

Employers should view women going on maternity leave as building leadership skills, not taking time off, according to one professional network



Despite changes in workplace law and a general cultural shift to a more gender-diverse workplace, headway still isn’t being made for many women in their attempts to break through to executive positions.

“We’ve got 50% more women graduating from University on average, and yet careers aren’t progressing in the same way,” Janine Garner, founder of Little Black Dress Group, said.

Changes to workplace law are not always effective in stopping discrimination, particularly against pregnant women in the workplace. Women are having their jobs terminated sometimes just weeks before being entitled to leave and, in the case of Garner, upon their return.

“I was in a very senior job and I actually agreed to write strategies and do budgets while I was on maternity leave,” Garner explained. Upon returning, her strategies were presented and approved. “Then in the next breath I was made redundant”.

Although the law may have been able to protect Garner and others in her position, this isn’t always a practical option. “When your baby is two-months-old the last thing you feel like doing is going through the court.”

The issue of leave entitlements and flexible working options to accommodate care isn’t simply a woman’s issue, and Garner points out that as the population ages, workers may need flexible arrangements to care for elderly relatives.

Essentially, the issue of losing out on leave entitlements is an undercurrent that needs to be bought to the surface. Women become fearful due to their marginalisation, and do not assert their rights as an employee for fear of recompense. ”As a result, it is one of those non-spoken about things. It gets spoken about behind closed doors … I think it is an issue we need to start addressing,” Garner said.

To begin taking on the issue, Garner believes the first step is addressing unconscious bias, something we are all guilty of. “Because of the unconscious bias, you naturally gravitate to and employ like-minded people,” she explained.

Garner believes the language surrounding ‘maternity leave’ should be revamped, as ‘leave’ has negative connotations. The leadership skills that a woman will acquire during her maternity leave is something that Garner feels should be acknowledged by employers.

“Instead of saying ‘maternity leave’ you came back and it was a ‘maternity promotion’,” she suggested.

A small number of organisations do this well by engaging with females on maternity leave and developing plans to integrate them back into executive ranks when they return. Tracey Fellows was recruited by Microsoft from IBM when she was six or seven months pregnant, achieved a promotion while on maternity leave and was integrated into Microsoft’s executive ranks after her return to work. She later became CEO of Microsoft Australia. This very enlightened approach to the female career path isn’t taken by many organisations.

More actively, executives and managers should take steps to redefine their interview process to help diversify their workforce. Garner mentioned the idea of bringing in a third-party to help make the hire. They will provide a fresh angle on the candidate, and counter the unconscious bias. This person must be picked carefully to avoid introducing additional bias.

“If we are trying to lift the number of women in these leadership positions, the only way we can do that is to look outside the current management or leadership team and pull in somebody from outside that is a woman that has the skills and attributes you are looking for to become a part of that interview process,” Garner explained.

“You will naturally start challenging that unconscious bias because guys will be looking at something from their perspective and the woman will look at something from their perspective.”

Analysing this strategy, it is clear to see that it could be an effective tool in all forms of diversity, as unconscious bias can be carried for more than just gender.

Making the changes now is crucial to Garner, as she warns that the longer they are delayed, the more damaging they will be to future generations. “If we don’t push for a difference and if we don’t actually start challenging what is going on, the generations coming through now aren’t going to know any better.”

“The benefit of getting a more equal workplace are just phenomenal in terms of corporate culture, corporate loyalty and, of course, that bottom line,” Garner said. “If we are going to have women sitting at the table to create that environment, we’ve got to do things about it.”

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