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When the Going Gets Tough… the Tough Get Going

There is a huge amount of research being undertaken around the impact of gender diversity in leadership roles.

Well known, reputable companies such as McKinsey, Fortune, Dow Jones have all found that organisations with more women in the leadership ranks experience better financial results.

Currently over half of all graduates in Ireland are women, however at senior leadership levels the number falls to around 21% according to the CEB’s Global Labour Market Survey of Q1-Q3 2014.

So, where have all the women gone?

Let me tell you a story about a woman; let’s call her Jane, who was a senior manager within a very progressive ‘cool’ organization for 5 years. Jane was returning to work after a 6 month maternity leave and wanted to have more flexibility in her hours. Jane’s employer wasn’t open to the idea of flexible working or using parental leave to create a shorter working week. As a compromise Jane suggested a ‘staggered’ return to work working 2 days a week for 2 months and then returning full time in the third. Considering Jane could have had up to one year away from the office she felt this was a fair compromise. At the end of the first 2 months Jane was told that she wasn’t performing in her role and that she would be facing disciplinary action that could lead to her dismissal. This came as a complete surprise to Jane who had only been back in the office for 8 working days. The company soon realized they had picked the wrong person to mess with as Jane took legal advice and realized that she had a very good case for gender discrimination. Jane left the company after negotiating a settlement payment instead of taking the company to court. Jane has since found a great new employer who has accommodated her request for a 4 day working week so things have ended well.

The terrible thing is that this isn’t a work of fiction. This is a situation that really happened. It’s one of many that we hear about at Mumager when we talk to working moms. In fact Jane herself told us of a party she went to recently where she met 2 other first-time moms who had encountered problems and been ‘let go’ by their organisations after maternity leave.

In my experience working as HR Manager for various multinationals I saw first-hand the issue of what happens when a woman returns from maternity leave. In one instance a successful sales woman who wanted to work a 4 day week was removed from her lucrative accounts and given much smaller accounts as the manager didn’t believe that working part-time could be effective. Despite receiving advice that he was in breach of the law the manager continued with the decision again resulting in an out of court settlement equivalent to a years’ salary.

So, why are employers so slow to support working moms? In my opinion there are 5 main elements to the employer problem:

1. Negative experiences during an employee’s pregnancy

Some employers and line managers have bad experiences before a woman even takes maternity leave. There may be illness or complications during pregnancy that require the mom-to-be to have more unscheduled time off than the employer had anticipated. This can start the negativity against working moms.

2. Maternity cover

Then there is the issue of maternity cover. In some companies a new person is hired on a short term contract. Many people working on contracts are hoping that there will be an opportunity to be made permanent so they put in more hours and effort and time than is required in an attempt to prove how worthy they are. This can make a manager think ‘wow – this person is terrific, I can’t bear to lose them’ and they do whatever they can to make the person permanent while forgetting that they already have a permanent employee who just happens to be on maternity leave.

Other companies don’t hire cover and the team has to muddle along with less resources which can also have an impact. The manager can start to resent the absent mum and blame them for issues arising.

3. Employment law and HR advice

The next issue is the laws and rules around asking a woman when she is coming back from maternity leave. Many HR people will say that you must never ask a woman when she’s coming back as it’s illegal. Again this creates problems for the employer as they cannot plan resources for the future.

4. Requests for flexible working and/or reduced hours

Many companies do not have formal policies around flexible working or reduced hours. In Ireland there is no legal entitlement to flexible working or reduced hours so employers don’t spend time creating workable policies. My experience suggests that managers are fearful of ‘setting a precedent’ so they just refuse all requests rather than considering each one on its merits.

5. Unconscious gender bias

This is a complex issue and I can’t even begin to cover the science behind it. In brief it means that we are all vulnerable to the influence of deeply held views and ideas which create unconscious bias. In a male dominated world we know that unconscious gender bias is represented everywhere - the film industry, the media, advertising, social media, speaker representation at conferences, stock photography, and children's toys. This has a huge impact on how women are perceived and treated at work, and not just by men but by women themselves

The good news is that despite the many issues there are solutions that employers can put in place and you as a working mom can also work with your employer to create a win-win situation.

The most important step any working mom can take is to encourage and embrace dialogue. Do your best to give your manager and organization as much information as you can throughout your pregnancy. Set meetings to discuss your maternity cover and also decide if you’d like to be updated with company news while you’re away.


I strongly believe that all women and all workers have a part to play in ensuring that women are not discriminated against because they choose to have children. Women need the courage to challenge company policies and practices if they feel that they don’t support working parents. We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to equality in the workplace but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done!

At Mumager we support both working parents and employers to create and find win-win solutions.

If you’d like more information about solutions for employers and working moms please contact us at info@mumager.ie or via Twitter or Facebook.

About the Author

Mumager can give advice on everything related to going back to work after maternity leave. Whether it’s understanding your entitlements or how to deal with a difficult boss please ask us.

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