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Pitfalls of part-time work after kids

How do you make a job work after returning from maternity leave, asks Zoe Fielding.

Every year, tens of thousands of women return to the workforce after taking time off to have children. Full-time work may bring better career prospects, more pay and superannuation, and greater leave entitlements, but most mothers initially return to their jobs part time.

Women who had a job through pregnancy took an average of 32 weeks maternity leave following the birth of their child, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows. On resuming their jobs, 39 per cent of mothers initially worked fewer than 15 hours a week, while 45 per cent worked between 15 and 34 hours.

Women work part time at three times the rate of men, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), which it says has implications for promotions.

“Our data shows that part-time jobs are valued significantly less than full-time jobs, even on a full-time equivalent basis,” says WGEA strategy and engagement executive manager Jackie Woods. “Often, women have to trade off career progression or accept roles below their level of skills and experience in order to find the flexibility they need to manage work and caring.

“Across our dataset covering four million employees in Australia, just 6.3 per cent of managerial roles are worked part-time, suggesting it’s very difficult for those who can’t commit to a full-time workload to be considered for senior roles.”

Sharing the load

Things are changing for the better as childcare is more frequently shared between both parents, says former ANZ Banking Group chief human resources officer Susie Babani.

Flexible working is becoming ‘the new black’, whether you are a new mum or dad, or to meet other demands in your personal life,” Babani says. “For women considering going back part-time it’s important to negotiate goals and objectives that fairly reflect reduced working hours.

“The quality of work done in three days can still be outstanding. Quality and quantity are two different things.”

Babani says employers can watch for, and eliminate, systemic bias against staff members with alternative work arrangements. For example, ANZ includes a reminder in its performance review guidelines aimed at preventing behaviours, such as believing part timers cannot be rated better than “good” because of their work status.

The bank also supports its employees financially by providing a childcare allowance, continuing to pay superannuation during parental leave and by making an additional $500 annual contribution to female employees’ superannuation in Australia.

This is in recognition of the fact that time out of the workforce, reduced working hours and lower paid roles take their toll on women’s long-term savings.

Women generally retire with less than half as much in superannuation as men, research by The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia shows. In 2013-14, women retired with an average of $138,150, while men had accumulated $292,500, according to the association’s figures.

How much do you stand to lose in super? The MoneySmart website includes a calculator to help individuals model the effect of a career break or shift to part-time employment on their balance.

Juggling childcare

For some families the number of days worked comes down to the cost and availability of childcare.

About half of all children aged under 12 years attend some type of childcare, ABS data shows. Many are cared for by friends or family – particularly grandparents – at no cost. About one quarter attend paid care such as long day care, before and after school care, or family day care.

An analysis by the Australian National University found the financial benefits of the primary caregiver taper off as the number of days worked increases, if children are in paid care.

For high and low-income parents, the study found childcare costs (after benefits and rebate) noticeably began to outweigh the extra income the family received by having both partners working on the fourth and fifth days. In extreme cases there was no financial advantage to the primary carer working more than four days.

How Leila returned to work

Leila Buchanan (pictured) recently returned part time to a marketing position with an engineering company after taking maternity leave with her second son, Grady, who’s now one year old.

“The pros are that you get to use your brain again in a different way and get a break from the kids,” she says. “There’s also the social aspect and you get to keep you career current.”

On the downside, there are time pressures and constraints.

“Everything’s squeezed,” Buchanan says. “You still do five days’ work but in three days. You become more efficient but you miss out on things when you’re not at work for a full week and need to rely on your colleagues.”

Her employer has been flexible. She works from 8am to 4pm, three days a week, and takes a shorter lunch break to accommodate dropping off and picking up the kids.

The family found long day care near home for Grady and his three-year-old brother Ben, but there were waiting lists. Buchanan put her kids’ names down about six months before she needed the positions.

Childcare costs the family about $11,000 a year before tax and rebates, making it financially feasible for Buchanan to work part time, but she feels this decision has stifled her career.

“There are not a lot of positions I could move into that are higher than where I am.. Managers need to be there five days a week,” she says. “It’s not just career progression, but also pay rises. You might not be there for a year, so you may miss out on pay reviews.”

Childcare costs the family about $11,000 a year before tax and rebates, making it financially feasible for Buchanan to work part time, but she feels this decision has stifled her career.

“There are not a lot of positions I could move into that are higher than where I am.. Managers need to be there five days a week,” she says. “It’s not just career progression, but also pay rises. You might not be there for a year, so you may miss out on pay reviews.”