The ability for a mother to return to work after she has had children should be a right not a privilege. It should be unquestionable. Yet so many mothers experience difficulties in returning to work after they have taken maternity leave or a career break.
The law states that a woman who has taken up to 52 weeks maternity leave has the right to return to exactly the same job that she left. She can return to work at any time before the end of her maternity leave provided she gives her employer at least eight weeks’ notice of the date she intends to return. If the original job was full-time and she would prefer to work on a more flexible basis, she has the right to requestflexible working.
However, whilst the law may be clear on the principles, the reality is not always so straightforward. The request for flexible working, for example, has to be made in accordance with particular statutory guidelines and even then, although a mother has the right to request flexible working, she doesn’t have the right to have that request automatically granted. An employer can refuse on a number of grounds and a further request cannot be made within the following 12 months.
Even if an employer agrees to a request for flexible working, unfortunately there is still an attitude, in many workplaces, that if individuals request a flexible working pattern they are not “serious” about their careers. This concern has been further evidenced in a survey of 800 women solicitors, which suggested that half of women lawyers considered that solicitors who took up flexible working were ‘viewed as less serious about their careers’. The majority of flexible working proposals are requested by individuals needing to manage their childcare and, as this is still largely a responsibility borne by the women, it is, therefore, mothers who primarily bear the brunt of such attitudes.
However, attitudes and policies are slowly changing. Employers are slowly discovering that a lack of availability of flexible working patterns, as well as their poor utilisation, is a key factor in women leaving their jobs.
By promoting flexible working and offering more family friendly policies, the likelihood of key employees remaining in their roles increases dramatically. A survey in 2011 found that there was a “striking correlation” between employees being “happy with their work-life balance” and the “flexibility and support provided by their employer.” Happiness at work means greater commitment and productivity, a win-win situation for employers and employees alike, especially since it can cost up to three times the salary of each woman leaving work, to replace her.
Ultimately, the key for women wanting to return to work is to be properly prepared and to understand their rights.
Sarah Jane Butler is co-founder of Parental Choice, a one-stop-shop for parents that helps them make the right decisions about childcare and guides them through their legal rights, during and after pregnancy.