Women are far more likely than men to cite parental leave as a negative factor in their careers, according to new Ipsos Mori figures seen by The Guardian. 
Compiled from a poll of 1,119 adults, the research shows that almost a third (29%) of women think that taking maternity leave has had a negative impact on their careers – but when it comes to paternity leave, only 13% of men feel the same way.
Meanwhile, 45% of both parents and non-parents agreed with the statement: “Taking time off work to care for a child has a negative impact on a person’s job.” Split by gender, the levels of agreement were 44% for men and 47% for women.
The Guardian’s piece points out that, as an employer, Ipsos Mori offers new mothers and fathers equal time off. Its director of HR Claire Timmins said: “Levels of awareness and understanding of the different policies on offer need to be significantly increased and it is clear that responsibility here lies with employers.”
A sterner assessment of the figures came from Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, which campaigns against maternity and pregnancy discrimination at work. “With child-rearing being disproportionately done by women,” she said, “it means that mothers are losing out on pay rises and promotions. Parental leave is just the start of it, with the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimating that by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old, her hourly pay rate is 33% behind that of a man.”
Brearley stressed: “The whole system is set up to fail mothers – firstly because our parental leave system very much favours women to take time out of the workplace to care, rather than men. Secondly, because we have the second most expensive childcare system in the world, forcing many mothers into part-time work and some to give up their paid jobs altogether; and finally because part-time work is hard to find and is undervalued. This means that hundreds of thousands of parents – usually mothers – are working well below their competency level.”
The research indicates that firms still have a long way to go to make parental leave work for women. What should they learn from the figures?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “That there’s a difference between how maternity and paternity leave are viewed is hardly surprising. If she’s having a baby, a woman has no choice but to take time off work to give birth. Even within shared parental leave, which some would argue is a good initiative, there’s the risk that it could dwindle into a sort of zero-sum approach, where the parents attempt to equalise the time available purely because they can, rather than to equally share out the duties of parenting.”
She notes: “What’s really interesting to me is that if we consider the rise of the four-day week – or, as I prefer to think of it, the decline in working hours – then why is there a focus in this debate on ‘part-time work’? What, exactly, is it part time from? You would never say that someone who averages a 37-hour week is part time just because they don’t do as many hours as someone who averages a 60-hour week.
“So instead of talking about part-time work, how about we just talk about work? Leaders should value the jobs that their organisations offer, regardless of how many hours those jobs occupy. It’s about the content of the work that attracts a certain rate. It’s not about the convenience of the employer. Let’s redefine what we mean by work, and ensure that the job is adequately rewarded – irrespective of the person who’s doing the job. We must pay the rate for the job as dictated by the skills it requires, rather than paying the person. And let’s also introduce a less zero-sum approach to parental leave, whereby parents have equal time off as a given, rather than having to share out leave from a pot of available time.”
Cooper adds: “We also need firms to recognise that, in the course of a mother’s working life – even if she has, say, three children, or even more – maternity leave does not constitute a huge amount of time away from the workplace. Providing meaningful work that enables new mothers to sustain a healthy work-life balance is mutually advantageous. As a firm, you’re not losing the talent that the mother represents. At the same time, she is able to make a tangible contribution, rather than suffer exclusion – or feel like she’s stuck in the workplace doing tasks well below her level of capability.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on understanding HR
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