Maternity leave; not ALL bad, you know

by Maria on August 8, 2013

I’ve never been fortunate enough to take maternity leave, but boy have I benefited from it. When I changed career in the late 1990s from film and tv production in Ireland to technology policy in the UK, my first two jobs started as maternity cover positions. I was hired by the Confederation of British Industry and then by The Law Society to be an Internet policy wonk at a time when that was such a new thing, there were maybe half a dozen jobs doing it in the UK and I was one of the first people who’d trained especially for it. (The LSE hadn’t heard of Internet policy either, tbh, but they bemusedly let me write a Masters dissertation on it, because, well, why not?)

But the point is I don’t think either organisation would have been as keen to take a punt on a career-changer like me in a permanent job, even though both subsequently offered me one. A 9 - 12 month interim position was ideal for all three parties; me getting an opportunity to help create a new field, the employer trying out someone new effectively for free (everyone seems to forget that in the UK statutory maternity leave is paid by the government), and the person whose job it was who could take their proper leave and then come back to work.

Of course, where it gets messy and unfair is when employers decide they like the shiny new person more and shunt the returning worker aside, or when they don’t bother to cover the position at all and expect the existing workers to pick up the slack. I’m not saying those things never happen, even in a system where we have decent-ish protections for working mothers, just pointing out one happy though unintended consequence of maternity leave.

UPDATE: Of course the reality for UK working mothers on their return is often far from rosy, with half of them saying their careers have utterly stalled since having children, and a quarter believing they are discriminated against: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-23600465

{ 15 comments }

1

MPAVictoria 08.08.13 at 2:08 pm

Maternity leave is a god send. I am always horrified when I read stories about working women in the US having to go back to work only a few weeks after giving birth.

2

marek 08.08.13 at 3:24 pm

Statutory Maternity Pay is indeed free (or pretty much free*) to employers, but that doesn’t mean that the net cost of maternity cover is zero. SMP is quite limited: employers are required to pay out (and are entitled to be reimbursed for) 90% of pre-maternity earnings for the first six weeks, but only a maximum of about £135 a week for the following 33 weeks. For an employee with contractual maternity pay related to a salary above about £7,000 or a period longer than nine months, which are far from universal, but also far from uncommon, the employer may end up paying for a substantial proportion of the maternity pay in addition to paying for maternity cover.

Of course, from an employer’s point of view that’s effectively a sunk cost: if they want to get the work done, it will have to be paid for, regardless of the net cost of maternity pay – and the broader argument that the known fixed period may allow the employer to be more experimental in choosing somebody to provide maternity cover is not lessened by the existence or otherwise of a net cost.

*Complicated by different approaches to reimbursement for smaller and larger employers, but that can safely be ignored here.

3

aaron_m 08.08.13 at 3:45 pm

If bloggers at crooked timber don’t depart from the premise that it should be paternity leave not maternity leave who will?

4

Substance McGravitas 08.08.13 at 4:07 pm

It’s parental leave.

5

Omega Centauri 08.08.13 at 4:32 pm

I think there is the potential disruption factor. Many positions can be pretty well covered by reasigning duties temporaily -or adding another temp worker -or overtime etc. Some (hopefully much better remunerated) positions cannot adaquately be covered by someone else. For instance I’m in specialty software, and the only guy that works on certain features is on a month long Euro-holliday, and have to leave certain issues sit unresolved for at least that long [This has nothing to do with maternity leave -and in any case a mother(parent) at home could probably work from home half timeish to cover such cases]. But, the disruption factor of having a particular person away varies by orders of magnitude depending upon the details of the work.

6

Maria 08.08.13 at 4:43 pm

aaron_m, as the post makes quite clear, I am describing a particular set of circumstances in the UK in the late 1990s, not an aspirational/hypothetical/desirable ideal. I dohappen to think parental leave is desirable; but that’s simply not the topic I wrote about.

7

john b 08.09.13 at 2:44 am

marek: “the employer may end up paying for a substantial proportion of the maternity pay in addition to paying for maternity cover” is true in the UK only if the employer chooses to offer their employees a contract in which maternity pay goes beyond the statutory requirements. Since there is no obligation for an employer to do this (obviously), they will only do so if they believe that the benefit to their business of offering such a contract outweighs the cost imposed.

Substance McGravitis: not yet, it isn’t. In the UK it will become parental leave in 2014, when the right to split the entitlement between parents is granted. This is already the case in Sweden. But under the current UK setup (and most setups worldwide), where leave cannot be split, the physical demands of recovering from birth ensure that – with the exception of same-sex couples and surrogate births – the mother is forced to take the whole entitlement.

8

Meredith 08.09.13 at 3:15 am

In the U.S., some PRIVATE employers (and some public and private employers with UNIONIZED employees) provide “parental leave” for fathers as well as biological mothers. Where I teach, men get to teach one course less in the semester of or just after a child’s birth. Biological mothers get a whole semester off (full pay) and take the one-course relief, in addition (but with a slight reduction in salary compensation). (Greatly improved from my childbearing days, when there were NO maternity leaves. You don’t want to hear about it….) But academics have it good in the US compared to just about everyone else.

As to Maria’s larger interest: doesn’t the nature of the job make a difference? Someone can be found to teach the courses a mother or father would have taught for one semester (though many disruptions result, from committee work to student thesis advising and departmental projects of a million kinds). Someone else can flip hamburgers for a few months. But in many jobs, the disruptions are truly severe when someone just disappears for x months. A lawyer playing a key role a major case, an engineer playing a key role in a major project…. It’s going to cost a lot, require major rethinking of how we organize work in many fields, to pull off humane maternity, paternity, parental leave policies and practices. We must do it! But it won’t be cheap or easy.

Like mental health policies. I am 100% behind ensuring that people with various disorders are not discriminated against and, equally important, supported and integrated into the workplace. But that takes lots of resources to pull off. It really does. Resources of time, energy, imagination.

We are not cogs, any of us, and yet, we sort of are. We need to organize work so that more people are employed and can replace one another.

9

Bostoniangirl 08.09.13 at 3:26 am

When women go on maternity leave at my organization they get 3 months of leave if they’ve only just qualified for FMLA or more if they’re more senior. The state requires something less for everyone. The tasks just get dumped on other people.

We had one woman take a job as a licensed social worker, go on maternity leave 3 months later and then decide not to come back. She didn’t qualify for FMLA, but she was the best candidate for the job which is underpaid, and they wanted to keep her. It sucked, because we had about 6 months of her boss covering 2 jobs. This is in an organization that is already underfunded. The idea of someone covering and not just expecting other people to work harder for no more money is foreign to me.

10

MPAVictoria 08.09.13 at 11:13 am

“. It’s going to cost a lot, require major rethinking of how we organize work in many fields, to pull off humane maternity, paternity, parental leave policies and practices. We must do it! But it won’t be cheap or easy”

It actually works out okay. Where I work parents get a full year which can be divided up between the man and woman as they see fit. It really works rather well and people just get on with getting the work done. Don’t let he bastards con you into thinking these kind of benefits are impossible.

11

SamChevre 08.09.13 at 12:10 pm

In the U.S., some PRIVATE employers provide “parental leave” for fathers as well as biological mothers.

Actually, due to FMLA, pretty much all private employers do so. (Mine does, and I’ve taken advantage of it.) Note that it is not paid leave.

12

Main Street Muse 08.09.13 at 12:41 pm

As one self-employed, I supposed it could be said I was in control of my leave. But when first child was born, I was on a job – I kept nudging the client with reminders that soon, a baby would come, needed feedback, decisions. He called with feedback when I was in labor.

I did finish the job just a few days after my beautiful baby was born. It was not fun. Took unpaid time off after that for a bit. The parental juggle requires dexterity and skill and not a lot of sleep.

13

ajay 08.13.13 at 3:16 pm

me getting an opportunity to help create a new field, the employer trying out someone new effectively for free (everyone seems to forget that in the UK statutory maternity leave is paid by the government), and the person whose job it was who could take their proper leave and then come back to work.
Of course, where it gets messy and unfair is when employers decide they like the shiny new person more and shunt the returning worker aside, or when they don’t bother to cover the position at all and expect the existing workers to pick up the slack.

Anecdotally, all this, good and bad, applies too to military reservists being mobilised for a year…

though mothers are better off than soldiers in one important respect: it’s illegal not to hire (or promote) a woman because you suspect that she may want to go off and have a baby, but it’s not illegal not to hire a reservist because you suspect that she may be mobilised.

14

Maria 08.13.13 at 10:59 pm

Hi ajay, that’s really interesting. I’d not thought to compare the two before. In the UK reservists are a much smaller thing, though now the government’s fired a fifth of the army, they’re trying to hire them all back as reservists – though of course with almost none of the benefits. Employers are basically saying nice-sounding things, through their trade associations, and otherwise having none of it.

15

ajay 08.14.13 at 9:34 am

14: I was actually talking about the situation in the UK (which is where I am); I think that in the US your legal protections are slightly more extensive, and employers in general tend to be more supportive.
The comparison’s somewhat on my mind because I know several reservists who have experienced mobilisation, pregnancy or both (though not simultaneously!) and they haven’t been shy about contrasting the legal treatment of each.
(The other comparison is between recruit training and childcare. “I manage to get my head down for half an hour,” one said woefully, “and then I get woken up by some little fat guy screaming at me and I have to get out of bed and clean something.”)

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