Rachel: What do you mean, you’re taking over my job.
Gavin: Well, while you were on your baby vacation, I was *doing* your job.
Rachel: A vacation? My idea of a vacation does not involve something sucking on my nipples until they are raw.
This is a rather comical look at what it’s like when a woman comes back maternity leave as portrayed on the popular sitcom Friends. When Rachel Green (played by Jennifer Aniston) returns from her maternity leave from Ralph Lauren, she finds that someone has taken over her job and she is going to have to fight to keep her place. But that was a sitcom with a fun theme song and a laugh track. It was not real life. In real life some women really do have to come back from maternity leave and fight for their jobs. It was not so funny when Christina Thielst was laid off three weeks after returning from her maternity leave to her position as Chief Operating Officer for a hospital. Her boss told her the only women that were CEOs either had fully-grown children or no children.
“Some of the reasons women are going to the home is because organizations are not stepping up to the plate. Some organizations are cutting back,” says Lisa Levey of Catalyst, a women’s rights research and advisory group in New York. With the U.S. being one of only three countries to not offer paid maternity leave many women have to go back to work after six weeks even if they aren’t ready but more and more mothers are doing this today. According to a recent study, the proportion of mothers with young children who go out to work was around 31% in the early 1980s. The figure passed the 50% mark in the late 1990s and hit 55% in 2003.[tagbox tag="maternity leave"]
It is difficult to leave your newborn baby and return to work but what helps is an understanding employer. According to a recent British study, more than a third of working mothers want to quit their jobs to look after their children, research suggests. A further six in ten would like to reduce their hours to spend more time with their young ones, the Government-backed study found. A flexible work schedule helps employers retain mothers who have just returned to their jobs after giving birth, according to another new study. ”When confronted by one or more job demands, a flexible schedule provides working moms with alternatives for meeting those demands while caring for their newborns. When working moms are better able to control their work environment and adapt, work-related stress is less likely to become a family issue,” study author Dawn S. Carlson, a professor of management at Baylor University. She and her colleagues also found that working women with new babies were more likely to stick with their jobs if they have job security and can make use of a variety of their job skills, while the effects of work-related stress on their physical and mental health increases the risk of them leaving their job.
But for those employers who don’t understand the importance of giving these mothers a secure and caring work environment, the results are usually not good. Perhaps these women are not being as blatantly penalized as returning mothers in Australia who receive a lower hourly pay rate than other female workers with no career break, but they are definitely being punished in other ways.
One woman told us her story of her experience as a legal assistant:
I went full-time after my daughter was born in May. I had been working as a legal assistant, but I fully intended to return after a 12-week maternity leave. My daughter decided to come a week early, and I hadn’t finished organizing a file for my boss. So, during my leave, I sent him an email asking him if he wanted me to come in to organize the file. He responded with a diatribe about my real and imagined failings and blasted me for not completing the file organization sooner. He also laid out “conditions” for my return to work (don’t do ANYTHING personal on the clock, which is impossible with kids; don’t be late, which is also impossible in the Northeast with crazy snowstorms and again, KIDS; don’t make mistakes on ANYTHING, which is impossible because we’re all human).
Did I go back? No. The other staff could be late, shop online during work hours, forward emails, engage in lengthy personal calls, even pay their bills on the clock, and make mistakes, but I couldn’t? I was setting myself up to fail if I went back. So I didn’t. I didn’t have much of a financial cushion, but I figured that working for myself would be MUCH better than working for this jerk.
It seems that some companies even almost try to test these new mothers to make sure they are really committed to the job.
Heidi York Gerkin was the primary evening news anchor at a local television station.
Following my first pregnancy I was told by station management that they did not want me to become pregnant again. I can remember an evening when my husband was out of town and I was going to get my daughter from child care on my dinner break….something my husband usually did. Suddenly I was assigned a story and told I would not be getting a dinner break, which was very unusual. When I told my boss that my husband was out of town and that I had to take my break in order to pick up my child. I was told “too bad” and that I would have to “figure something out” because I was not getting a break. Fortunately, my child care provider was able to stay with my child that night until 11 pm. Looking back I really think they wanted me to quit that day and hoped I would be forced to when they backed me into a “corner” where I would have to choose between my infant and my job.
A little more than a year later I did become pregnant again. Within a month of telling them that I was expecting, I was “reassigned” to an entry level position. I had nearly 15 years experience and I was doing the same job as co-workers who had graduated from college just months prior.
Giving these women the option of a more flexible schedule or just being considerate of the fact that they have to take breast milk pumping breaks makes a tremendous difference. According to new research from the University of Warwick, many women in the UK are being forced to go back to work full-time or abandon their careers after having a child because of a lack of part-time work, particularly those in senior or highly-paid roles. Lead author of the study Clare Lyonette says many women in more senior positions found they could not return to their previous jobs on a part-time basis after maternity leave but women in lower-paid positions were most likely to go back to work part-time. “There is a culture among many employers that part-time work is not a viable option in more senior positions. We found women who were in senior positions who wanted to go back to work part-time had to downgrade jobs and work well below their abilities,” said Lyonette. According to research, more women also stop breastfeeding earlier and maternity leave length is one of the reasons.
Women are going to back to go work after having children no matter what, especially those who knew their career trajectories will be damaged by an extended maternity leave but how the company they work for handles their transition back to work makes a huge difference. Some companies do believe that they are saving money by weeding out these women who may not stick around for long anyway but perhaps they should pay attention to research that shows that making flexible work an option at law firms almost always brings benefits to the business – increased employee commitment and productivity, reductions in staff turnover and training costs and a greater ability to respond to customer requirements are common feedback. One U.S. study estimated the cost of replacing a second year associate to be $200,000.00.
And companies should always remember Helena Morrissey. Twenty years ago she was the only female on a team with 16 male bond fund traders at Schroders Investment Management in London. She had just returned from her first maternity leave and her boss passed her over for a promotion, saying he doubted her job commitment. “I wanted to know if I’d done something wrong or I wasn’t ready,” Morrissey told Bloomberg Markets Magazine. “The answer came back, ‘Well, you’ve just had your first child, and we’re not sure whether you can make it through.’ The sense was that I was on a different path.” She quit, joined Newton Investment Management and, seven years later, became Chief Executive Officer at age 35 when Mellon Financial Corp., now Bank of New York Mellon Corp, took over. Oh, and then she had eight more kids. Anybody doubting her job commitment or ability now?
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