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Maternity leave - Sexism and the City 05/10/2009

Does maternity leave negatively impact women’s careers?

Maternity leave - Sexism and the City

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  1. Maternity - complex and emotive issue
  2. My story
  3. Sexual innuendo
  4. No flexibility
  5. Redundancy after maternity leave
  6. Taking control
  7. Has becoming a mother affected my career?
  8. Skills shortage in IT - wasted female talent
  9. One in five UK workers will be mothers

Maternity - complex and emotive issue

The media is buzzing this week following Nicola Brewer’s comment that there may be unintended consequences of a focus on mothers rather than on generic flexible working.

This is a complex and emotive issue, raising strong reactions from all sides. The Federation of Small Businesses, understandably, is reiterating the difficulties that small businesses face dealing with extended maternity and paternity leave, while the TUC says that family-friendly rights do not hurt women’s job prospects and insists that those who contradict this tend to be employers who simply don’t want to employ children of child-bearing age. 

So, Carrie Bradshaw style a la Sex and the City, I find myself at my laptop pondering the question: “Does maternity leave negatively impact women’s careers, and did it impact mine?”

My story

First of all, allow me to introduce myself: My name is Amanda Alexander, and I am the founder and director of two companies that specialise in helping working mothers and their employers to achieve success -  www.corporatemothers.com and www.coachingmums.com.

Last week I was interviewed by a journalist from one of the broadsheets about the issue of maternity leave affecting women’s careers and I found myself expressing strong emotions too. As a working mum myself, and one whose original career path certainly was curtailed by becoming a mother, I feel angry by the sex discrimination I encountered when, working as an IT project manager seven years ago, I became pregnant. My career took a dramatic twist and you could say that it was powerfully – and negatively – impacted by maternity leave. 

Just to paint you a picture, I was a well-respected project manager, having made my way through various assessment centres, passed the Association of Project Managers exam and was an accredited professional member. I managed complex projects internationally, including a two year stint in Africa. Prior to starting my IT career, I spent six years in higher education, taking a double honours degree in languages followed by a conversion MSc in Computing. When I became a post-grad student I also took a job as a pastoral tutor, taking care of undergraduate students. I think most would agree, I was no slouch.

Sexual innuendo

I worked in a macho world where banter was the norm; when I announced I was pregnant it was the source of much banter and sexual innuendo. I didn’t complain – that’s not what you did. I had to “be one of the lads”, pregnant or not. 

But beneath the banter, the management were clearly shocked. As a pregnant project manager, I became a rare, strange and exotic animal - one that they clearly didn’t quite know how to manage. 

No flexibility

I returned after 6 months (the maximum maternity leave at the time) to a full-time position. The response to my request to work a four day week was short and to the point: “There’s no such thing as a part-time project manager”.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would Challenge this statement a million times over, but I’ll save that argument for another day. While I don’t think that I did myself any favours in my employers’ eyes by asking the flexible working question, I know that my card had already been marked before maternity leave. I was threatened with redundancy shortly after my pregnancy announcement. I won’t go into the long and sorry tale; suffice to say, the threat “went away” when the strange and exotic animal bit back.

Redundancy after maternity leave

So, what am I doing now, almost 7 years on? My employer actually did make me redundant several months after my return to work. I applied for a job as a systems integration PM for an American bank. I was short-listed to the final two for the job, and lost to the other candidate. At the time, I read nothing into this other than the explanation that he had more financial services experience.

Although my 10 year career in IT had been spent almost exclusively working for financial services clients, I simply accepted that “the best man won”. At that time, despite my experience before and during maternity leave, it really never occurred to me that the reason might have been down to my sex. We’ll never know, and this is pure speculation. 

However, having heard hundreds of executive working mums over the past six years recounting stories similar to my own, there will always be a tiny grain of doubt in my mind.

Taking control

Soon after the failed interview, I found myself applying for a job with the same bank, but this time in its call centre, as they boasted their flexible working credentials. The downside was that this was a £6 per hour position rather than a £50K + Benefits position.

Of course, you know it’s a happy ending. I didn’t take the job. I kicked myself up the backside, started retraining as a coach and set up Coaching Mums soon after. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Has becoming a mother affected my career?

I think it has in many ways. I’d be hard pushed to find a job on the same salary and Benefits as I was receiving several years ago. And you could say that years in graduate and post-graduate training have not been directly utilised. I’ve gone on to spend thousands on coach training, and I’m one of few coaches in the UK to be accredited with the International Coach Federation.

But am I using any of the knowledge and experience I built up at university or during my career? Absolutely not. Is this a waste? For me, no because I love what I do. But my salary has not yet reached the level of my former IT salary, and my pension can best be described as tokenist. So financially the impact is most definitely negative.

Skills shortage in IT - wasted female talent

However, the bigger picture is this: I am one of the hundreds of thousands of women who have given up their IT careers over the past seven years. According to the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York, up to 52% of women are leaving their IT careers in their 30s and 40s. These figures are reflected in the UK and shortage of talent is a hot topic that’s going to get hotter. 

One in five UK workers will be mothers

In the next few years, 80% of the growth in the UK workforce will be accounted for by women and by 2010, one in five UK workers will be mothers.

The question of whether becoming a mother is bad for a woman’s career is not just a politically correct debate. It is an issue to address urgently by companies seeking to hook the best talent in an ever-shrinking pool.

For the country’s economy, we can’t afford to let motherhood negatively impact women’s careers.

Amanda Alexander, Amanda Alexander Associates

Amanda Alexander, Amanda Alexander Associates

At Amanda Alexander, we inspire professional people to unleash their true potential and achieve success with balance.