The past, present and future of maternity leave

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The past, present and future of maternity leave

By Andrew Fenlon

As a society it’s really important for us to have a steady stream of ‘the next generation’ coming through. The alternative is a society which is steadily aging – and as a result contracting. Governments understand this and have given various incentives to assist in the cost of having children over time.

Currently, the largest financial burden relating to child birth and child caring is carried by women. It is estimated that women having children earn 20% less than the average. Conversely men having children, with their partner undertaking the primary caring for the children get a premium of 15% (not really sure why!) compared to the average.

There are some programs which aim to help women through maternity – such as paid maternity leave and the option for 10 ‘keeping in touch’ days. Unfortunately, these are often not enough – or lack promotion, awareness and consistency.

The position is made worse by some terrible employment practices such as:

  • Making pregnant women redundant either before or during maternity
  • Making the ‘keeping in touch’ days either unknown, difficult or impossible to use
  • Not holding the person’s role open for them so that they cannot return to their previous job
  • Not providing any return to work program for returning mothers
  • Not supporting flexible work – often by requiring a role to be filled 100% by one person working nine-to-five.
  • Upon returning to work should the woman request to do the role part time, often no one is hired to fill the other days, thus the woman does the entire role, in fewer days and is paid a pro-rata salary

Hopefully your organisation is better than this – but we see many instances of the above!

It is no surprise, then, that many women, once having children, do not return to their previous employer. They either look for part time work which might support their caring responsibilities, or they decide to set out on their own.

Caring doesn’t finish when the maternity period stops. Children need support and assistance for many years after being born (in fact many parents still have children living with them into their 20s!) This support includes regular care – but also the unexpected demands when a child is either sick or had an accident. In many instances (personal and professional) the assumption is that the mother will continue to cover the bulk of these duties.

The negative impacts on women because of this approach are significant:

  • They can lack confidence (because they have been out of the work environment for an extended period)
  • They can get caught in a ‘poverty trap’ – the net earnings are less than the cost of child care – so they stay at home or are in a ‘break-even’ scenario
  • They earn less – and this continues throughout the rest of their career
  • They are more likely to work in part time jobs that are below their capability
  • They are often overlooked for promotion into management roles
  • They accumulate less superannuation
  • There is an increased chance of homelessness in older age

Society suffers too. It is estimated that if women could be fully engaged in the workforce, then there would be a 20% increase in GDP. This is larger than any other single sector – it’s three times the size of mining!

As Australians, we need to reconsider where the burden of birth and child-caring lies. The main economic beneficiary is society (children grow up, consume and pay taxes!) – so society should bear more of the cost.

If we want to continue to have a vibrant country where the creation of the next generation of Australians is supported – we need to change things. Fortunately, there are examples from overseas and some forward-thinking organisations that we can use to help us.

A start could include:

  • Recognising that the financial burden of bringing up a child should not all fall on the shoulders of the mother. The father and society need to bear more of the effort and cost
  • Having more open-minded workplaces that allow men to look after their child. Removing the stigma around a man asking to be home with their child
  • Working to the point where child care is substantially funded by the public purse – just like childhood education
  • Providing realistic and enforceable (on the manager) options for the ‘10 keeping in touch days’ (which might well be part days to assist the mother with her caring duties)
  • Ensuring that men are supported by their organisations to be more available for their children – two weeks of paternity leave doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface
  • Ensuring women cannot be retrenched just because they become pregnant
  • Ensuring mothers have the right to a reasonable return to work plan (which might need to be over a period of years) to their previous job
  • Ensuring flexible working options are available to everyone as a default
  • Ensuring organisations offer management positions either as flexible roles or as job shares

I’m not saying that these changes will totally address the current maternity chasm, but if we can start to make these changes, we’ll all be better off!


Andrew Fenlon is the director and co-creator of Women into Leadership. He has over 20 years of international experience in public and private sector organisations. After doing some analyses on what was impacting women and their ability to become leaders, he saw a need to help women – organizationally and individually – thus Women into Leadership was born. As a brand of Fast Track Leadership, Women into Leadership has a range of programs that implement systemic and lasting change at an organizational level so more women can achieve leadership roles. It also provides leadership development programs for individuals.

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