Returning to Work Following Maternity Leave - Overcoming Discrimination

 A common concern heard amongst STEM qualified professionals is the difficulty in getting girls engaged in STEM subjects during school and pursuing STEM careers. But a conversation not as often had is the difficulty retaining women in STEM careers. 

Retaining women in these careers can be difficult particularly when they decide to start a family. Whilst there are more men taking parental leave now and for longer periods of time, generally women will take off more time. Not because we don’t want to return to work, but because we need to continue breast feeding or don’t want to miss out on those precious newborn months. 

Unfortunately, data from the Australian Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) shows that women who take time off to have children earn less (full-time) than those that don’t take a break. This same data also shows that men who take a break to have children generally don’t earn less than their counterparts who didn’t take a break and that men who work part-time in STEM careers generally earn more than women working part-time regardless of whether they are working part-time due to having a new child or not.

Statistics
Australian Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources – STEM Equity Monitor, 2021

Returning to work following maternity leave can be a hard thing to do regardless of how long you’ve taken off with your children and following the data from the DISER it comes as no surprise that research from the Australian Human Rights Commission shows:
  • Almost half (49%) of mother experienced some form of workplace discrimination while pregnant, on leave or returning to work from parental leave. 
  • Over a third (36%) of mothers experienced this discrimination upon their return to work.
  • Almost one in five (18%) mothers reported that they were made redundant, restructured, dismissed or their contract was not renewed either during their pregnancy, when they requested or took parental leave or when they returned to work.
  • Nearly a third (32%) who were discriminated against resigned or sought a new job.
  • 84% of mothers who experienced discrimination reported a negative impact on their health, finances, career, and job opportunities, because of the discrimination.
Statistics
Australian Human Rights Commission – Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review - Report, 2014

As can be seen by these stats, there is a serious downfall between the intent of many initiatives trying to increase women in STEM careers as compared to the harsh reality many women are facing in the workplace.

It isn’t new information that women represent an underutilized and undervalued talent pool in STEM careers. However, it seems that the work culture and systems currently in place in STEM workplaces do not allow for women to confidently return to work following maternity leave. 

This is not only detrimental to the women who lose engagement in the workforce, but also to businesses that experience significant talent loss. This should be concerning to employers who are experiencing these types of losses as they are losing an investment when talent and IP leave their business.

In an effort to retain the talent and expertise of mothers in STEM, we need to start by debunking the myth that women who seek flexible work arrangements are less ambitious. This cannot be further from the truth. In fact, they simply take different routes to achieve their goals; they make sacrifices and rethink the way they work. In my experience, mothers working under flexible work arrangements are more efficient, organised and productive than their full-time counterparts, simply because they have to be, and this can be a great asset to a company.

Tips on making the return to work easier

1. Know your rights

In Australia, the Fair Work Ombudsman allows for every employee to take 12 months of unpaid maternity or parental leave and return to work after the birth or adoption of their child. The Fair Work Act 2009 ensures you have a right to return to the same job, on the same working conditions after your parental leave. If you want to engage in a different working arrangement, such as part-time hours, this is subject to negotiation with your employer. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission states employers must treat workers returning from parental leave fairly. However, from the information above, we know this isn’t always the case. The Fair Work Commission helps employees and employers negotiate and processes applications relating to unlawful termination.

2. Talk to your employer

If you’re nervous about returning to work, talk to your employer in advance. Talk about arrangements you might need in relation to breastfeeding or expressing, time off you may need for sick children, flexible working arrangements, etc. 

If there are any new mums at work, have a chat and ask how they managed their return to work.   

3. Organise childcare early

Whether you’re planning on using a daycare centre, a family daycare or friends and family, making sure these arrangements are set in stone well before your planned return to work will help put your mind at ease. There can also be some long waitlists at daycare centres as well, so if you have your mind set on one, enroll early. 

As well as doing a few play dates so that you can get to know the educators and they can get to know you and your child, also do one or two test days so that if something goes wrong you don’t have to leave work to deal with it. Just make sure you keep yourself busy because that first day you leave your baby can be tough.

4. Ask for help

No one expects you to be able to do it all! Asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of. Most employers are fair on their staff and realise that raising a child and working isn’t easy. There may be times when you think it’s all too much, but push through those difficult days and you will find you’re able to enjoy your career again. 

Once you have your routine sorted, you may even start to appreciate the small freedoms that come with returning to work, like being able to enjoy a cup of tea/coffee, having an adult conversation that is not all about your children, or going to the toilet without interruptions!

5. Be kind to yourself

Transitioning back into the workplace is tough. No one expects you to get it right all of the time, so don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. Look after you mental and physical health and try to find time for yourself at least once a month if not weekly… Even if it is just ice cream and TV after the kids are in bed.

My personal return to work experience

Whilst I was on maternity leave with my first born, the company I was working for was going through a restructure. This resulted in a shortage of engineers in my team which led the company to request me to return to work earlier than I had planned. This put me in a unique situation where I had the power. They needed me, not the other way around. 

So, I requested to return under flexible working arrangements. I returned to work 2 months early working 20 hours per week from home before returning full-time as planned with condensed hours to allow me to work 2 days in the office and 2 days from home. This gave both me and my new baby the opportunity to gradually return to the workplace and transition into childcare. I was able to provide value to my workplace whilst also not missing out on any major milestones with my daughter.

I’m currently still on maternity leave with my second child but will be returning part-time from home when my son is 4 months old for 5 months and then will be remaining part-time, 2 days in the office and 1 day at home to accommodate my first-born going to Kindergarten (5 day fortnights, 6 hour days, not designed for working parents).

As I had worked from home after returning to work with my first born and again during covid-19 restrictions, I had no issues with my manager organizing to work from home again as I had proven my ability to efficiently and effectively work from home. 

If you had the opportunity to work from home during covid-19 and you felt you were still bringing value to your company, I recommend using that experience as evidence to help persuade your employer to allow flexible working arrangements following maternity leave.

Looking for Support?

If you're looking for information and support, the Supporting Working Parents is a great Australian Government initiative that could help.

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