This week I found myself in the rather hot but quite lovely Churchill Room, overlooking the river at the Houses of Parliament.
I was attending the launch of ‘Working Forward – supporting pregnancy and maternity rights’, an initiative led by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and currently 10 big businesses aiming to inspire other organizations to follow their example by working to eradicate maternity discrimination and make the best use of their female workforce.
When 84% of British businesses say they support pregnant women and those on maternity leave yet 77% of mothers say they have had a negative or discriminatory experience at work, you know there is a problem.
Personally I’ve know this for quite a while but now we have the data to prove it and businesses are slowly wising up to the fact that great policies and plans are only a part of the process. From my work coaching women through the pregnancy journey and transition to motherhood I know that the responsibility for changing the current, quite frankly depressing statistics lies not only with managers but with leaders, mothers and fathers-to-be and everyone thinking about having a family or not.
Working Forward aims to bridge the current gap and bring about change by working with companies on four key focus areas:
- Leadership from the top down
- Ensuring confident employees
- Training and supporting line managers
- Flexible working practices.
I welcome the initiative wholeheartedly – there are many similarities to Bumps and the Boardroom’s campaign to Changing 100,000 Lives inspired by the EHRC data, our benchmarking framework and 3 Aims – but the EHRC have the backing of influential business bodies such as the CBI, Institute of Directors (IOD), the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and Government which we were struggling to get on board proving sometimes you need to work from the inside out and it’s as much about timing and connections as the idea.
Where I think there is room for improvement and look forward to exploring this with the EHRC, is around a significant culture change and perceiving pregnancy differently so that younger women and men see a new normal path to parenthood where they are both actively and equally involved and both benefit from the emotional growth the transition offers. Feminine values in leadership are on the ascendant and we need these skills in both women and men to take business forward which pregnancy and parenthood provides.*
We also need to continue to redefine what “success” looks like and let it be personal for everyone as despite Arianna Huffington’s best efforts to introduce a third metric beyond money & power and conscious businesses using their power to address social and environmental problems, day-to-day there is still a great deal of focus on what’s expected from women and men rather than giving respect to internal feelings of fulfillment and working smartly.
Unconscious bias around maternity is high as the “Motherhood penalty, Daddy bonus” shows but it goes much deeper than the assumption that women become less committed to their career when they see the two blue lines.
Many women automatically default to the stereotypes of being the primary carer, opting for part time work rather than exploring how to share a reduction in hours with their partner but as Anne-Marie Slaughter, the feminist politics professor says:
Women still think care is our job and men just help. But it’s not a woman’s job any more than breadwinning is a man’s.
There is no denying the strong bond a new mother feels to her newborn and leaving your child is hard and perhaps impossible for some, but despite evidence showing men struggle with this too the expectation for men to continue on as the breadwinner persists. Having the conversations around managing maternity differently can be a stretch for many women who perceive black marks will be made against them or their partners if they challenge the current norm and so stick with the status quo when long term, doing it differently would have huge benefits for all.
Fortunately the number of single sex couples who parent more equally are challenging stuck assumptions and we are slowly becoming less judgmental around women who don’t want to work. I just hope the decision to do so comes from a place of choice not because the options on offer are limited and unattractive.
Last week I met women from two big financial institutions who outwardly advise they are very committed to their women. Internally the truth seems to be different with one saying she had lost all hope of being able to have a family and continue her career after seeing her HR Director who has recently returned from her second maternity leave break down and admit she is overwhelmed and feels she is failing in all areas. The lack of disconnect between parents, policies, procedures and public statements of intent are a real issue but I am delighted to say I have invitations from both the EHRC and the Women’s Business Council to help ensure companies walk their talk and female and male employees feel empowered to speak up and talk about what’s working well and what’s not.
“Legislation and policy is the foundation, but the important bit is about how it is then interpreted by managers.”
Mark McLane. Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Barclays.
Knowing how to make changes is a key area for the initiative and the programs we are about to launch will provide additional solutions that are affordable, scalable and help everyone to understand why change is so crucial.
The plans we have to show pregnancy positively and as a catalyst for career advancement have also been welcomed. Later this month Bumps and the Boardroom’s website will have the ability to upload your stories and connect with real role models who found their pregnancy acted as a springboard to bigger and better things in their career leading to greater happiness all round. It’s something we’ve been planning for a while and I’m thrilled it’s coming soon.
It was heartening to talk to some of the high-profile founding members who will encourage businesses in their supply chains to sign up to the coalition and pledge to make their workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new mothers. The founders have pledged to share their knowledge, experience and good practice with businesses who sign up, as well as highlighting the economic benefits they get from retaining female talent as everyone takes more notice when they can see the connection to the bottom line.
Along with everyone in the room Caroline Dinenage, Minister for Women, Equalities and Early Years’ comment that she would like to see change within the next 5 years was something we agree with. Maria Miller, Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee echoed the fact that the time for change is now.
Maria, we hear you and look forward to a time of great change. With such passion, commitment and leaders of note behind it I am excited to see and be a part of maternity managed differently.
Visit www.equalityhumanrights.com/workingforward for more information on Working Forward, including more information about all of the founding members and how to sign up.
*See “The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future,” and John Gerzema’s TEDxWomen talk to learn why the leadership qualities often seen as feminine must be ascendant in the 21st century workplace.
About the author
Lisa Barnwell has over 14 years experience working with more than 2000 women through the pregnancy journey and transition to motherhood. She is the Founder of Bumps and the Boardroom and is a maternity coach and consultant for businesses and individuals who want to manage maternity differently.
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