Returning to work

Why supporting mums returning to work is not such a bad thing, really.

I am still recovering from yesterday’s outing on the radio. In true radio style, I was pitched against someone who theoretically disagrees with everything I say. She was very forthright, condemning Harriet Harman specifically for damaging women’s career prospects by increasing maternity leave and, I think, bringing in a culture where people talk about "supporting" working mums. She said employers hands were totally tied by legislation so that if they didn’t do what women employees wanted they would be before a tribunal "in a second".

This is so far from what I understand to be the case that I didn’t even know where to begin. It seems to me that it is, in fact, very difficult to go to a tribunal for any particular reason unless you have an employer who will not automatically back management. First, you have to exhaust the grievance procedures at your work, which means staying in what can be a hostile environment. Then you have to get through whatever threatening letters they throw at you, and some companies have made this their own particular art. Next when your confidence has been ground down to a pulp, you have to summon up the courage to get several of your colleagues to speak out for you, knowing that by doing this they may be risking their jobs/careers. This is on top of the financial risk you run if you don’t win or pull out. Much better, for your own health and sanity, to walk away.  Perhaps I have only heard of the bad experiences, though.
Fortunately, though, most women do not have to resort to tribunals and have employers who don’t want their return to be such a demoralising experience that they either give up or resign. Indeed, many forward-thinking employers now specifically acknowledge and, dare I say it, support women returning to the workplace, knowing that they are juggling a lot of life-changing, difficult issues. This does not, however, mean creating a room full of divan chairs where working mums can be pampered if the whole thing gets too much for them. If only. It basically means acknowledging what they are going through, rather than treating their return much the same as you would someone coming back from a few days off with a cold. Women are in the workplace to stay. The fact that they have to take a few months off to have children over the course of, say, 40 plus years of work should not be viewed as so very difficult. The fact that they want flexible working in a world where the more flexible firms are forging ahead should also not be viewed as a hurdle. Indeed, research shows, most people, including young people, now view flexible working as one of the key things they want from work. Harping on about women and work as if we can turn back the clock to the 1950s is fantasy land. The debate has moved on.

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