Women working for small businesses are more likely to defer having children because they may miss out on income, compared with those employed by large companies with paid maternity leave schemes, according to the Melbourne Institute’s latest Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey.
Giving up work for an extended stretch to care for an infant can put the squeeze on mothers and couples facing today’s high housing and living costs, which, for many households, require two full-time pay packets to service.
So how important is access to paid maternity leave in the career planning and decision making of working women who want to start or expand their families?
Do large companies which offer generous provisions – and in some cases continue to pay superannuation during leave – have the jump on smaller employers when it comes to attracting and retaining quality candidates in their childbearing years?
In many instances, yes, says human resources specialist and Employee Matters founder Natasha Hawker.
“I do think that the best candidates would be assessing the generosity of parental-leave benefits when deciding to join a company, if children are a possibility over the next 10 years,” she says.
“So these policies will be attractive but it is important to ensure that these businesses are actively embracing those policies and it is not just ‘lip service’.”
“Employees know which companies are progressive in this area and which are not. I know of one organisation where, although they had generous maternity policies in place, female employees felt the reality was that they could not hold down a senior role with childcare responsibilities and so opted to leave.”
Keeping mum about baby plans
While it may impact on the decision whether or not to accept a new role, women tend to keep their interest in maternity provisions quiet, according to executive recruiter Andrew Medard, managing director of Amge+.
“Most candidates don’t want to be seen to be curious about parental-leave policies prior to joining a new company, for fear of being disadvantaged due to the perception created that they may be planning to have a family in the near-to-medium term,” he says.
Many employers consider parental leave an inconvenience and a risk to business and team continuity, Medard believes. Female candidates may already see themselves as being at a disadvantage to evenly matched male competitors and be loath to exacerbate this by querying details of the parental-leave scheme.
The Australian government’s parental leave pay provides eligible employees who are the primary carer of a newborn or adopted child with up to 18 weeks leave at the national minimum wage rate, currently $672.40 a week. Workers can claim this payment in addition to employer-funded leave.
The generosity of the latter varies widely at the big end of town, Medard observes.
Some organisations offer paid parental leave of between three and six months for primary carers, whether male or female. Many have a policy of keeping roles open for 12 months or more while employees are on maternity leave, and some offer additional financial incentives such as return-to-work bonuses.
“It’s clear that many of Australia’s biggest employers are directing significant resources and effort towards removing bias, discrimination and hurdles that women who want to have a career, as well as a family, continue to experience,” Medard says.
Australian Bureau of Statistics research from 2011 – the latest available – shows there were 151,200 female employees who had a job while pregnant and were entitled to paid maternity leave that year. Of this cohort, 87 per cent took paid leave on either full pay, half pay or a combination of both. This data doesn’t include women who own their own businesses.
That same year, 159,800 women took unpaid maternity leave, following childbirth. Of this group, 29 per cent took between 14 and 26 weeks leave and 17 per cent took 27 to 39 weeks.
Making it work for you
Lack of access to employer-funded leave has not been a barrier to enlarging the family for Sydney woman Nicolien Timmer (pictured), who is preparing for the birth of her second child in November.
Employed as a business development manager for corporate training organisation Southern Cross Coaching and Development, Timmer learnt she was pregnant shortly after taking on the role. She was cognisant from the outset that employer-funded leave could not feature in her financial and family-planning process.
“It was a small company, so I knew I wouldn’t get any maternity leave cover – I knew I would get some from the government which, in comparison, isn’t a lot of money, of course, but better than a poke in the eye,” Timmer says.
“I’ve always said, ‘well, money is one thing but you shouldn’t change your whole life based on that’. There is always a way, you can always make ways, you can budget things differently, you can go on less holidays and make sure you don’t drive an expensive car – you can always make it work.”
She plans to take about five months off, as she did with her first child two years ago, then ease back into the workforce three days a week.
Working for a supportive business which allows its employees to work flexibly can be as much of a boon to new mothers as generous entitlements, Timmer believes.
“I have a few times seen people get paid leave from their company but then that ties them to have to come back at a certain time, for a certain amount of hours, and that can cause a lot of pressure,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s easier with a smaller company because you can talk directly with the manager or CEO – that can be one of the big advantages.
“At Southern Cross Coaching and Development they make it so clear that they value having the right people – which luckily they think I am – and respect the concept that people have a life outside work.
“When I found out I was pregnant I went to the owner and CEO and he immediately said, ‘do whatever you need, how long do you want to take off and I hope you still want to stay working here, I hope you’re not leaving’ – his reaction was really human and pleasant and massively supportive.”