11 / 5 / 2015 8am
Sarah Jackson is chief executive officer for Working Families - the UK's leading work-life balance campaign organisation.
For many employers, pregnancy and maternity has been both an opportunity and a challenge over the years. On the one hand, they have responded to pregnancy and maternity by developing many of the family friendly policies that they offer today: in fact, dealing with pregnancy, maternity and return to work is the place where flexible working as we know it today really began in the late 1970s. But it has also been an area where employer practice has been found wanting, from overt discrimination against pregnant employees to more insidious problems involving hostile attitudes, managerial fear, and negative cultural assumptions about pregnancy, maternity and work.
At Working Families, we see both sides. We’re happy to have as members some of the leading organisations when it comes to maternity and the workplace. We know, from our annual benchmarking of employer policy, and also from submissions to our Top Employer awards, that many employers continue to develop policies and practices to support pregnant employees, and continue that support when the same employees return to work after their baby is born. What characterises good maternity provision is a number of things: a good suite of polices to provide a structured framework to support women during pregnancy and beyond; advice, information and training for managers to help them effectively manage their pregnant team members; and proactive HR, going beyond just ensuring legislative compliance and promoting best practice.
However, we also see poor and discriminatory practice through calls to our helpline. Parents contact Working Families’ advice service when they encounter problems at work which are related to being a working parent or carer. Often, these calls relate to issues around maternity and pregnancy, and unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination have consistently made up a substantial number of the total calls the helpline has received over the years. Being demoted or dismissed after telling their employer they were pregnant, being deliberately side-lined, suddenly being made redundant on maternity leave and being told there is no job to return to are some of the common themes. Our advisers are often able to help the individuals who call us, but a deeper problem remains in that many employers still get the basics of maternity (and paternity) wrong. What might be done about this?
There are a number of positive steps that employers can take to get ‘better’ at pregnancy and maternity. This isn’t just about getting the legislative and compliance bit right, important as it is. Rather, it is about understanding pregnancy and maternity better, and configuring it so that it supports not only mothers, but also the strategic plans and values of the wider organisation. And, importantly, it should complement and be part of the whole suite of practices and policies that support work-life within the organisation. Too often organisations have developed extremely generous and comprehensive maternity policies whilst leaving policies for fathers and carers relatively underdeveloped. They then struggle with issues of resentment, and of the reinforcing of gender stereotypes that associate work-life balance, flexible working and mothers. Pregnancy can become viewed as negative influence on a woman’s career.
Perhaps the key activity that good employers share is that they train and support managers around maternity. This includes how to manage effectively during pregnancy, how to plan for maternity leave and how to facilitate a successful return back to work. Managers frequently fear ‘doing the wrong thing’ with pregnant employees, and subsequently over-rely on guidance from HR. Thus the focus tends to be on compliance rather than on the manager and team member working together towards common goals. Neither the organisation nor the employee does well from this. Training managers, so they can be more confident about talking to pregnant employees, including about work and potential plans for return is, in the long run, good for the organisation. Managers can plan their teams more effectively, and their team members can be more confident in a supportive relationship with their manager that will support smooth transitions from and into work.
About Working Families
We support and give a voice to working parents and carers, whilst also helping employers create workplaces which encourage work-life balance for everyone. By working with parents and carers and organisations alike, Working Families helps children, working parents and carers and their employers find a better balance between responsibilities at home and work. By operating in the real world of pragmatic advice and practical solutions, we are making our vision a reality.
To find out more about us visit: www.workingfamilies.org.uk