The answer is sadly very few! The ability to return to work after you have had your children should be a right not a privilege. It should be unquestionable and yet so many mothers have difficulty in returning to work after they have taken maternity leave or a career break.
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 to work. If the original job was full-time and she would prefer to work on a more flexible basis, she has the right to request flexible working. (For more details on how to request flexible working, please read our guide to flexible working.)
However the law may be clear on the principles but sadly the reality is not always so straightforward. Requesting flexible working, for example, has to be carried out according to particular statutory guidelines and even then, although you have the right to request flexible working, you don’t have the right to have that request automatically accepted. Your employer can refuse on a number of grounds and you cannot make another request within the following 12 months. In addition women are often reluctant to request flexible working as they believe that “flexible working will/would adversely affect their career progression in [their] company”.
Over 54% of employees who responded to a recent survey were concerned that flexibility may negatively affect their career. 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 the individuals needing to manage their childcare and this is still largely a responsibility borne by the women and it is, therefore, mothers who primarily bear the brunt of such attitudes.
It is not all doom and gloom! Attitudes and policies are slowly changing. The Government concluded a consultation last year on modern workplaces which considered the reform of flexible working. That’s all very well you might say but will that change my employer’s attitude. Firstly if is enshrined in law, they will have no choice. Secondly 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 given their working arrangement’ on the one hand and employer flexibility and practical support.” Happiness at work means greater commitment and productivity. A win-win situation for employers and employees alike especially since, for each woman that leaves work, it can cost up to three times her salary to replace her.
Ultimately, the key for women wanting to return to work is to be properly prepared and to understand their rights.