More than half of Australian women have been discriminated against in the workplace for being a mum, a study has shown.
The FlexCareers study revealed only 11 percent of working mums believed they had a flexible work arrangement, while one in four were forced to resign because their request for flexible hours or duties was denied.
More than 400 respondents took part in an online survey and focus groups, revealing hundreds of stories of discrimination, including being overlooked for promotion, being made redundant, having a maternity leave fill-in placed permanently in their position and missing out on opportunities.
Human resources expert, former Telstra Business Woman of the Year and FlexCareers chairperson Rhonda Brighton-Hall told The Huffington Post Australia she was regularly inundated with calls from mums who had experienced discrimination in the workplace.
“I would not go a week without a woman, often pregnant or with children, ringing with a story of gross discrimination,” Brighton-Hall told HuffPost Australia.
“The most common example, is women made redundant either while they’re on maternity leave or as they plan to return to work.
“Second most common would be people who’ve asked for flexibility and been turned down. They often get offered redundancy rather than flexibility.
“In the really bad cases, you can usually help them. The laws are pretty good so you know people have appropriate rights, but if you go all legal too early, you can end up in a worse situation.
“You really have to find ways to communicate and cajole people into behaving better and treating people properly, let alone staying inside the law.”
She said she wasn’t surprised by the study’s finding that 52 percent of working mums had faced discrimination.
“We were hoping for better news, but we’re also realistic,” she said.
“We deal with flexible work, and specifically women, every day, so we hear a lot of disappointing stories. We weren’t surprised by the numbers but that doesn’t make them OK.
“We need to get better.”
Change is crucial -- but how?
Brighton-Hall said some positives had come out of the research, including pinpointing the three key ways to support women in the workplace.
- Increasing flexible working practices;
- Training managers so they’re confident and capable of leading a flexible workforce;
- Better communication from companies to employees on what flexible work options are available.
She said businesses were missing out on the diverse talent and experiences of returning-to-work mothers because they would not consider flexible working conditions.
“I have met so many very talented and capable working mothers who can’t find flexibility in the early years of their children’s lives. They end opting out of paid work for a few years.
“This then compounds as they lose their confidence and current skills.
“When the children are older, they then find it even harder to return. So, it’s a long-term economic problem for the country. We miss out on great contributors.
“Our research is confirming what others are also saying, and that’s that the current lack of flexible work is the main barrier to women fully participating in the workforce.”
The FlexCareers research supported a nother study by Ernst and Young in 2013, that showed $1.4 billion in wasted wages across Australia and New Zealand could be saved by employing productive female workers in flexible roles.
Discrimination doesn’t discriminate
Brighton-Hall said even she had faced discrimination in the workplace.
“I’m a mum of three. Show me a mum of three who hasn’t seen discrimination and I’ll show you one very lucky person,” she said.
“That said, I have been reasonably lucky with my employers, but I’ve also chosen pretty carefully. As a HR person, you know which companies are genuinely best for women. I’ve mostly had great bosses, but a few bad ones.
“I’ve been called in with other women and told ‘none of you should ever mention your kids'. That’s a bit weird.
"I’ve also done my share of 7am meetings, that has meant I’ve tied myself into a little pretzel to look happy and present, when all I was really trying to do was read an urgent text under the table about missing sports uniforms.”
Maternity transition coach Sona Thacore said mums trying to get back into the workforce often felt ashamed about the maternity gap in their resume.
“Often that whole parental leave gap in the resume, women feel ashamed to talk about it,” she said.
“It’s really heartbreaking as a coach to see incredibly accomplished women, some of them CEOs of organisations, just feel defeated because their whole identity has changed and their value changes in the way they're perceived.
“It can be really challenging emotionally. But they can turn it around and present their time away from paid work as incredibly positive, from an employer’s perspective.”
What action can a working mum take?
Brighton-Hall said a working mum who felt she had been discriminated against had plenty of options.
“The discrimination laws are fair and reasonable, and provide good guidance,” she said.
“If they can’t get a fair hearing at work, they can contact the Human Rights Commission.
“They’ll go through mediation, and then into a dispute to be resolved. All of this should be the last resort though, as whilst you’ll get a fair outcome, it can really sour the relationships at work, plus adds a lot of stress to the person making the complaint.
“I’d start with a good open conversation with your manager. Talk about exactly what’s happening, and how it seems to be playing out.
“Most times, this discussion, leads to a bit of a rethink on behalf of the company and a better outcome. Where it doesn’t, well those laws are there for a reason.”
Why working mums are good for business
Thacore said it was becoming increasingly difficult for mothers to return to the workforce.
“They find that the time that it takes to find something with enough flexibility very disheartening,” she said.
“The three big things they struggle with is confidence -- they don’t present themselves well, or have a proper strategy. There’s also that lack of flexible roles available and a need to be up-to-date with technology and social media.
“They’re the common ones that hold women back from returning to work.”
Brighton-Hall said while business may struggle with providing flexible working environments for mums, both valued the contribution working mums made.
“Big business values gender diversity and inclusion for two main reasons -- diversity of thought drives better business outcomes, and a more diverse workforce better reflects their customer base,” she said.
“To smaller businesses, who are often more nimble, they just want the best people with great skills, and are happy to be flexible to get them. When the smaller businesses talk to us about our community, they’re looking for unique skills or expertise that are rare and critical for their success.
“They’re happy to have that skill for a few hours or flexible hours as best suits the employee.”
Thacore also said working mums could be a great fit for small business because:
- They were open to working flexible hours and working from home (important for small business owners who often require work to be completed either before or after normal office hours, and/or outside the place of business).
- They were proven multi-taskers (often small businesses have less people to do the required tasks, so the ability to multi-task is a big advantage).
- They’re highly organised and accountable (because they have to be!).
- They often work for a sense of identity rather than just for money (increased productivity and loyalty).
- They can grow with the business as the return-to-work mum’s circumstances change.
How can a returning to work mum prepare for interviews?
Preparing to jump back into the world of paid work can be a daunting one, particularly when mums are trying to find a flexible working environment.
Here are Thacore’s interview tips:
- In addition to your relevant training and professional experience, talk about the ‘gap’ in your resume positively and the transferable skills you gained from it -- and how those skills can specifically add to the success of the business. Employees with transferable skills are highly valued and useful in small businesses.
- Don’t be afraid to emphasise that motherhood has made you an extremely efficient multi-tasker.
- Prepare examples that articulate your professional and value-driven sense of responsibility and accountability. Small business in particular will be relying heavily on your ability to perform your role because there’ll be less people to pick up any ’slack’ if it’s not.
- If appropriate, explore whether flexible work arrangements could be mutually beneficial and cost effective.
- If you have the relevant experience and capability, offer to mentor the less experienced employees during your shifts. This will be extremely valued given that a formal mentoring/training program is probably not in place and will allow the business owner to concentrate on other tasks.
The way forward
Brighton-Hall said the best way to achieve flexibility was to discuss the individual needs of each working mother, but that was not always practical.
“That’s part of the problem -- there is no one size fits all,” she said.
“We can certainly make a few models that help most -- part-time, job share, short days, short weeks, work from home, flexible and additional vacation time -- and then work from there.
“We need to create flexible work models, and we need to move mindsets to say flexibility does not mean the end of your career.
“We need leaders who are comfortable leading a flexible team. It’s letting go of the old adage ‘if I can see you, I can see you’re working’.
“We should be way past that now.”
The FlexCareers platform links women with progressive employers offering flexible work.