Progressing your career while pregnant

Andrew Medard explains how employees and managers should handle the anxious 'pregnancy conversation'.

Pregnancy has long been known as a significant career interruption or complete career diversion for women. The average age of a first-time mother in Australia is approximately 30. In 2013, increased fertility rates only occurred in the 40-to-44 year-old age group, for which fertility rates have tripled over the past 30 years. These years represent key times for progression in anyone's career.

This situation demands change by both the employee and employer if countries such as Australia will ever meet gender-pay equality or targets such as 30 per cent of women on boards.

Finding out you are (or trying to become) pregnant when you’re interviewing for a new role or negotiating salary can create anxiety. This anxiety can result in the woman taking an inferior package or backing out of an opportunity altogether. In turn, this may seriously affect career momentum and impact reward and recognition expectations.

Likewise, managers who find out a preferred candidate is pregnant or who has one of their star performers requiring increased flexibility for unknown reasons (while they may suspect the cause is pregnancy related) can find it extremely difficult to know how to open up an appropriate discussion.

As a recruiter in the senior financial end of the market, I am often in the middle of navigating an applicant's feeling of vulnerability due to family planning and a manager's vulnerability of not knowing what to do when their preferred candidate has just said they're pregnant.

It happens more often than you'd expect. Based on over 10 years of seeing the good, the bad and the uncertain around how to handle this situation, here are my five tips to employees and managers on how to best approach this sensitive time.

For the expecting mother and hoping-to-be

1.     Have a plan and openly communicate it

If you are pregnant, be clear and up-front about your plans for working after pregnancy, as well as how much time you plan to take off.

Many people will argue that this is private information that shouldn't have to be shared. However, if you don't, the risk is assumptions may be made on your behalf that don't reflect your plans.

2.     Back yourself

Don't discount yourself because you want to work part-time or flexible hours. Unlike males, women physically must take some time off when having a baby.

And don't feel you should be grateful for flexibility and therefore be open to a lower pay package or that you shouldn't go for a promotion. Any smart manager will pay you fairly if you have the skills and commitment required to do the job.

3.     If you find out you're pregnant in the middle of a hiring process.

This is one of the most difficult situations. My advice is to hold off sharing this information until you are aware you are the preferred candidate. Once you know this it is best to discuss your pregnancy with the hiring manager once you're ready to progress towards a formal offer and acceptance.

Telling the hiring manager prior to formalising your employment provides an opportunity for both parties to discuss how parental leave will be handled by both sides and what solutions you and the company may offer to one another.

4.     Consider working full-time

A controversial piece of advice perhaps because many women expect working part-time is the best option for managing their family and career aspirations.

Consider fully whether working full-time can offer the balance you require, not to mention remuneration, especially if your employer offers flexible start and end times or work-from-home days.

Note that working what has previously been a full-time role in three or four days can place undue stress on a working parent and result in work being completed on non-work days.

Think through the practicalities of what you will be paid versus the work you will be doing and how you will be performing it. Working full-time hours could mean you take less or no work home with you.

If you are working part-time and know you will soon like to return to full-time work, communicate this as early and openly as possible to your manager and employer.

5.     Discuss balancing parental responsibilities with your partner

Have a plan on how you and your partner will work together to care for your child, especially when your child is sick, and how you will share managing the at-home tasks that come with parenthood.

Discuss it while keeping a view as to how you want to manage both of your careers. Women often take on the bulk of responsibilities at home and don't raise the idea of more evenly sharing them until they’re struggling to balance everything.

For the manager

1.     Keep an open mind

What has worked for you personally may not work for your employees – you may have a partner who stays at home to look after your children and all of the accompanying parental responsibilities. Or you may have been through this stage of your life with managers who cut you no breaks.

Everyone has a different personal situation and will have different ways of managing parenthood. Be flexible and creative in coming up with solutions to make it work for you and your employees.

Your attitude and support may not only help them through a life transition but they could end up being the best employee you ever had. Happy employees tend to be the most productive, hence offering flexibility to your employee results in a win/win.

2.     Don't make assumptions

Often pregnant women or mothers are not considered for promotions or overseas assignments because it's assumed they don't want the responsibility or are not mobile. It's always best to ask the woman directly.

This conversation should be had with all staff, not just women, as part of your regular performance and career-planning discussions. Speaking openly with your employees will make them feel more valued and will give you insights into the engagement and ambition of your employees.

3.     Pay fairly

Don't pay women on the assumption their salary is the secondary salary of the household. I have examples of women being asked what their husband does for work, who is the major 'bread-winner' in their household and of women being compared with men who are the sole income-earner for a family of five and subsequently being paid less than their colleagues.

This shouldn't come into the equation when working out what anyone's role and performance is worth. You have a responsibility here to ensure gender is not factored into remuneration.

4.     If faced with pregnancy news during a hiring process, do not let it influence your decision

This is difficult news to receive, particularly for smaller businesses that may run very lean teams and can't afford maternity leave benefits.

Remind yourself that if she is the right fit for your business you don't want to lose her.

A successful solution I have seen an organisation apply is to mutually agree to the time-off needed for maternity leave and to offer a return-to-work bonus equivalent to the company's maternity leave benefit. This was a great solution that addressed the needs of both parties.


5.     Talk openly about it

Managers are sometimes understandably afraid of broaching the pregnancy topic to the extent that it doesn't get discussed at all.

Ensure you have a policy and that it's made clear and available to your employees. Present an open-door policy about pregnancy and communicate how you will keep all discussions strictly confidential.

With fertility treatments becoming more widespread, this transparency is important given the time away from the office that is needed to attend and receive treatment.

It's better to be informed than to be surprised and that openness can help ensure your solutions are proactive, tailored to each individual's situation and address the needs of both parties.

Furthermore, it will allow you to attract highly-effective female leaders who aspire to thrive at work while working in a family-positive culture.

Andrew Medard is the founder and managing director for amge+, a boutique recruitment firm specialising in executive, finance and accounting positions.

This story originally appeared on bluenotes.anz.com