Saturday 24 March 2018

The cost of motherhood - working women left behind

Outdated attitudes to childrearing have left Irish women at the bottom of the pile when it comes to equality at work, according to a new study.

Laura Haugh with son James and daughter Lucy. Haugh says she understands why women worry about the impact children will have on their careers. Photo: Alex Oliveira
Laura Haugh with son James and daughter Lucy. Haugh says she understands why women worry about the impact children will have on their careers. Photo: Alex Oliveira
'Barrier': Caroline McEnery of the HR Suite.
Deirdre Reynolds

Deirdre Reynolds

When her youngest daughter Charlie arrived four years ago, Linda Davis took five weeks off work before returning to the twelve hour shifts she's been working ever since.

As the founder of Next Generation, an international recruitment company, the Dublin mum-of-three couldn't afford to stay at home. It was no different when she had her eldest child eleven years ago.

"When I had the first two, I had a relatively successful career and that revenue was contributing significantly to the family home, as was my husband's," says Linda, who previously worked for another recruitment agency before setting up her own company.

"I couldn't really have afforded to stay at home. I took the standard [six months] maternity leave and went straight back.

"I probably work longer [now]. I took five weeks' maternity leave with my four year-old daughter and work 12 or 13 hours a day."

And yet, despite working harder and smarter than ever before, Irish women aged 25-44 with at least one child still earn 31pc ess than their male counterparts, a new study has shown.

Comparing 18 European countries and the US on twelve key measures, the research by employer comparison site Glassdoor outed Ireland as being the worst for gender equality in the workplace. Sweden, Norway and Finland, conversely, boasted the highest scores.

More than three decades after the public-service marriage ban was lifted here, spokesperson Laura Haugh said she was disappointed, though not surprised, to learn that the gender inequality is still rife in offices throughout the land.

"It doesn't surprise me at all because every other European country seems to have a better handle on balancing parenting [with work]," she tells. "So they've got much better practises in terms of onsite childcare, increased flexibility for mums returning to work and then additional leave being allowed for dads.

"In Europe, they've a much more equal approach to parenting and they provide a huge amount of subsidies for childcare. Whereas in Ireland it's very much 'the father goes out to work and the mother should stay at home', that sort of [attitude] from the 1970s when women had to give up work when they got married.

"There are still employers out there who haven't changed thinking to coincide with that 36 years later."

Sure enough, between the prohibitive cost of childcare, paltry paternity leave and inflexible working hours, it's unlikely to come as a shock to parents here that the "cost of motherhood" is more in Ireland than elsewhere in Europe or even the States.

Last year, a survey by the Irish Independent found that a mother would need to earn around €30,000 a year just to fund the cost of childcare for two children, with the cost of a creche place for a baby and a toddler now running at up to €2,035 per month.

Little wonder then that 77pc of Irish mothers feel they can't afford to go back to work, but can't afford not to either, according to a separate study by Mummypages.

"Childcare costs being so high is a big barrier for women staying in the workforce," agrees Caroline McEnery of The HR Suite, which provides recruitment and training services to more than 300 companies nationwide.

"We would see a lot of women taking a career break to rear their family, and as a consequence of that they're out of the workforce for maybe a number of years, depending on the number of children they have.

"Then when they come back into the workforce they're willing to come back maybe at a lower entry point just to ease themselves back in, and that is obviously not all of the time, but a lot of the time.

"Obviously mothers are going to be out for maternity leave and they're going to be out potentially for parental leave, so opportunities for promotion may have been missed during that period of time."

Having worked in finance for over a decade before joining the parenting website, mum-of-two Laura says she can completely relate to the fear of sliding down the ladder after starting a family that frequently crops up on the forums.

"I worked in the Bank of Ireland for 13 years in PR and marketing," she says. "I was very fortunate because in my role both of my maternity leaves were fully paid, so I was able to enjoy my maternity leave and return to work.

"But after my second child, it was a big decision because 90pc of my salary was going to be taken up with childcare. I had to weigh up that decision of maintaining a foothold in my career, and not losing that position that I had climbed to on the career ladder, and sucking it up for a couple of years until one of them went to primary school.

"And that's really the decision that faces so many parents - even though it's not financially viable to be in work, sometimes in order to maintain any sort of career at all you need to be in work."

Speaking at the World Humanitarian Summit in Instanbul just yesterday, President Michael D Higgins urged world leaders to do more to redress "worsening" gender inequality in society, acknowledging "we are not doing enough".

Closer to home, it remains to be seen whether broader free access to pre-school and the introduction of statutory paternity leave, due to come into effect this September, will do anything to narrow Ireland's own embarrassing gender divide in 2016.

"I think there's definitely a bigger focus now around diversity and trying to address that gender pay gap," reckons Kerry-based HR consultant Caroline McEnery. "Now as part of talent strategies organisations are actively trying to facilitate employees, especially women, in as many ways as they can to try and help them stay in the workforce because at the end of the day we all recognise in society how important a job it is to rear children."

"Between the paternity leave being extended and the government talking about introducing childcare subsidies, I think both of those will start to make big improvements in the ability of mums to have the choice, and that's what our mums want," agrees Laura Haugh. "Not everybody wants to go back to work after having children - people's priorities change or they may actually take a complete change of direction in work - but I think that we need to offer mums choice."

With more than a third of Mummypages users admitting to having less ambition since having a baby however, reducing the "Mammy penalty" isn't just down employers or government incentives, according to the experts. To wit, even the United States, where women are not entitled to any paid maternity leave, fared better than Ireland in the damning Glassdoor report.

"It isn't just mothers or a non-mother thing - it's a female thing," argues Deirdre Waldron, President of Network Ireland, a women's business network made up of around 70pc entrepreneurs and 30pc professionals. "Studies show that women are more risk averse in general, so sometimes that stops them putting the hand up and going for the promotion or starting their own business.

"Guys will just say, 'Ah we'll go in and try it, sure if we don't get the grant or if I don't get the promotion, that's grand'. Generally women won't go for the promotion or the new business unless we feel we can tick every box."

Urging new mums to reclaim their rightful rung on the career ladder, should they choose to go back to work, the Fuzion PR founder continues: "I've seen it myself in my own business.

"Girls who come back after having babies, they've got so much more to give because they've gone through other life experiences, and I think it's a terrible attitude if they feel like they have to go backwards in their careers just because they needed to step out for a while to have a baby.

"I do think there's a whole conversation, and we're trying to have it within Network Ireland, around ambition and confidence, and I think the more you can surround yourself with positive people - people who encourage you to go for the same rate you were at before and not to go backwards in your career - the better."

As both a boss and a working mum, Linda Davis, who's currently working on the upcoming DatSci Awards, says she can see the two sides of the debate.

"I know an awful lot of mothers who work incredibly hard," she concedes. "It's brilliant for a lot of the global players who can lend that flexibility [to working mothers], but I think it's very difficult for smaller organisations to do that balance on both sides.

"I would have an awful lot of females in my organisation, some of them would have children, so we try and work a balance out," she adds. "I would have women here who come in at 8 in the morning, leave at 4.15pm, and would probably log back in later on to stay on top of their work. At the end of the day, I think finding that balance to try and stay in a powerful position while running a family is just very difficult."

Irish Independent

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