What women want – when returning to work

January 22, 2016
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I have found that there is no more personally or professionally challenging period than the switch to becoming a mother. Almost all women I know under 40 entered the workforce with the expectation that they would have a career their whole life. The median (average) age of mothers at the time of their first child has been rising, from a low of 25.4 years in 1971 to just above 30 years old today.

The result is that women get 10-15 years to build a professional career and then hit the whirlwind of parenthood. This is difficult both for employers and employees because it is around the point where many women are becoming supervisors and managers.

Maternity leave and return to work provisions are critical for ensuring women aren’t left worse off financially. But the disruption to a woman’s professional career path is harder to avoid.

In many respects, women in Canberra are lucky: the public service is constantly reorganising in response to political and policy needs. This makes it better equipped than most other organisations to handle staff taking extended periods of leave and then returning them to a similar or improved role. But this is the exception rather than the norm. Stories of women being sidelined from their existing role due to organisational restructures, or being pressured to return earlier than they would otherwise wish are frequent.

Nearly 1 in 4 women return to work to keep their job or because their employer requested it (25%). This figure is nearly double the number who returned to work for purely financial reasons (15%).

Even more mothers return to work because they want to stay in touch with the workforce that – until recently – was their life’s focus. 40% of women return to work to maintain their self-esteem, maintain their career or skills, or simply for more adult interaction and mental stimulation. In my experience, if you spend more than 12 months out of the workforce you begin to worry about whether you still have the ‘skills’ and ‘ability’ needed when you return to the workforce.

Many women also face the problem of finding a valued role that is part-time or has flexible working hours. While only 25% of mothers in families with one child work part-time, this rises to 70% for mothers who have two or more children. This rise is partly driven by necessity as children reach school age and require drop-off and pickup during business hours.

Under the Fair Work Act 2009, employees who have been employed for at least 12 months in their current role have the legal right to request flexible working arrangements. But frankly, far too many organisations are not well-equipped to deal with employees who don’t want to work standard full-time hours. There are far fewer part-time roles advertised, and most of these are low skill or low paid. Even if you do secure a part-time role, there is often an implicit (and sometime explicit) discriminatory attitude against part-time workers who seek promotion.

The perverse result is that women have an incentive to work hard and get promoted into the full-time job that they want before having children. They must then turn around and request part-time work from their employer, accepting the fact that they will be stuck in that role for quite a few years.

Unfortunately, this very pragmatic approach entrenches the stereotype that mothers exploit their entitlements and cost employers money. But women who weren’t lucky or forward-thinking enough to be able to achieve a good work situation before having kids can find returning to work very difficult and stressful.

Managers need to be trained in how to make part-time, offsite, and staff with irregular hours valuable members of their teams. Organisations also need better acceptance that managers can be in charge of teams without seeing them face-to-face at all times.

I think we can do better to satisfy the various needs of employees.