Removing the motherhood penalty

Mother’s Day is a day of celebration for families across Australia. It is also an opportunity for us to consider what motherhood means in contemporary society. Many mothers want to pursue careers alongside raising their children and they should not be penalised for doing so.

The grim reality of the “motherhood penalty” shows this is not the case. The gender pay gap shoots up after women take time out of work to have children and their earning capacity and opportunity for career progression after returning are diminished. We need to place much greater value on the contributions mothers make in our workplaces and to our nation’s economic wellbeing through both their paid and unpaid work.

In Australia, women are three times more likely to be working part-time than men. Many of these women are working mothers taking time out of the workforce to look after children. The value of unpaid childcare work is around $345 billion, which makes it almost three times larger than the financial and insurance sector combined. The burden of providing this care falls disproportionately on women. For every hour of unpaid care work done by men, women do one hour and 46 minutes.

Employers have an important role to play in helping Australia’s working mums. Our data shows that we still have a way to go before they get the full support they need.

One area which needs improvement is parental leave. Less than half of the employers that report to us offer paid parental leave in addition to the government scheme. These figures have remained fairly static since reporting began in 2013-14. 

The good news is that some employers are taking action. Property company Stockland offers a substantial range of parental benefits, including flexible parental leave options, return-to-work support and on-site childcare, to attract and retain employees. Stockland’s parental benefits scheme has led to a higher return-to-work rate and increased employee engagement and loyalty.

Another example is PwC which recently changed its parental leave policy to make it more flexible and accessible. Their employees can now take the full amount in one block, or they can work part-time for several months or they can take a few days or weeks at different times of the year. Companies such as HSBC, Viva Energy and Aurecon are paying superannuation to their employees when they are on paid and unpaid parental leave. They have recognised that Australian women often have significantly less superannuation savings than men so they are helping to overcome the gender retirement gap potentially faced by women in the workplace.

Offering flexible working arrangements is another measure employers can implement to help Australia’s working mothers. Here, our data tells a happier story as almost seven in ten employers now having a flexible working policy or strategy. However, strategies and policies need to be implemented through action. Agency data also shows that less than one in 20 has set targets for employee engagement in flexible work.

Some employers are again leading the way by matching policies with action. They have embraced organisation-wide acceptance of flexible work, allowing their employees to choose what structure best suits their productivity and life commitments.

Last year, Medibank introduced a FLEXbetter program – a flexible working initiative which offered all employees the ability to work flexibly. After 12 months, they saw significant improvements in employee engagement and wellbeing. Engineering firm Aurecon has an “all-roles” flex workplace culture. It is an across-the-board expectation in their company that you can work flexibly. Their Yes Flex program makes sure all flexible work requests are taken seriously and implemented with HR support.

Flexible working benefits women at all stages of their career path – not just the early and particularly demanding years of motherhood. Our Women in Leadership Report reveals that normalising flexible working arrangements is a key factor in improving women’s career progression and increasing the representation of women in leadership.

Other ways that employers can support working mums include providing breastfeeding facilities, creating “stay-in-touch” programs during parental leave and offering return-to-work support schemes such as bonus payments and coaching. As women are seven times as likely as men to leave the workplace during parental leave, return-to-work schemes such as SAP’s Back-to-Work program are a great way to help women re-enter the workforce.

This Mother’s Day, let’s recognise the true value of the work mothers do in the workplace as well as at home.