A COUPLE of weeks ago I attended a lunch for mothers who run their own businesses — so-called mumpreneurs — though I don’t particularly like that term. It sounds like a collective noun for a bunch of women who have nothing better to do than crochet baby blankets and sell them on Etsy.
This couldn’t be further from the shocking truth.
There would have been 80 women at this lunch. Between them, they ran design agencies, online magazines, active wear labels, skincare brands, baby food businesses and online stores.
In previous lives — i.e. the ones they had before they became mothers — they were general managers, real estate agents, marketing directors, lawyers and media professionals.
I spoke to many of them — some while bouncing unsettled newborns on their weary knees. What both astounded and appalled me was that most of these women told me they weren’t running these businesses out of a lifelong passion to do so.
They were working for themselves — in between breastfeeding and school pick-ups and homework and folding washing — because they felt they had no other option.
No other option because — for the overwhelming most part — Australian employees do not know how to, or are not willing to, accommodate mothers in paid employment.
The woman I was sitting next to — Louise — who has recently launched her own business, relayed how she had left her decade-long place of employment just weeks after returning from maternity leave.
Just months before she was due to return to her much-loved job in the events industry, she was told her position — the one she rightfully and lawfully, expected she would return to 12 months after giving birth to her baby girl — had been filled. Permanently.
She told me her boss sounded “surprised’’ when she rang to discuss her return to work, and having already filled her position, “found’’ her another role in administration, five days a week, with no flexibility to even work through her lunch break so she could leave a bit earlier to collect her daughter from childcare.
She lasted two weeks before resigning, with nowhere else to go. Feeling vulnerable and having had the confidence knocked out of her sails, she didn’t have the emotional strength to report or fight her case — something she regrets to this day.
PREGNANCY DISCRIMINATION ON THE RISE
But Louise is far from alone. For the past four years, pregnancy discrimination — including discrimination against pregnant women, women on maternity leave and those returning to work after maternity leave — has been the number one alleged discrimination complaint investigated by the Fair Work Ombudsman — even higher than disability discrimination.
In 2014-2015, 35 per cent of all discrimination complaints investigated by the Ombudsman were pregnancy-related, compared to 19 per cent for disability-related discrimination.
A recent National Review by the Australian Human Rights Commission into discrimination related to pregnancy, parental leave and return to work after parental leave found it is “pervasive.’’
According to the report, almost half (49 per cent) of all mothers surveyed reported workplace discrimination while pregnant, on leave or returning to work from parental leave.
In addition, 32 per cent of all mothers who were discriminated against went to look for another job or resigned.
And almost one in five (18 per cent) mothers indicated they were made redundant, their jobs were restructured, they were dismissed or their contract was not renewed.
Late last week, I spoke to Andrea, one of dozens of individual women and men who made submissions to the National Review.
She described how upon informing her CEO that she was pregnant, he asked, “Well, what are you planning to do for a job?” She was no longer wanted at the organisation she had worked tirelessly at for eight years.
Andrea said she felt like someone had “belted me in the stomach’’. Yet, like Louise, she also felt too vulnerable to report her boss’ behaviour or fight for her position. She left the organisation a week before she had her first child and never returned. She has since started her own not-for-profit group.
Today is International Women’s Day — a day in which we are encouraged to pledge for gender parity.
While men and women are currently at or near parity when it comes to health and education in most parts of the world, women continue to lag behind men in economic participation and opportunity by 15 to 25 per cent in even the most gender-equal societies.
In Australia, current female workforce participation rates are 59.5 per cent, compared to 71 per cent for men.
There is a strong argument that a great portion of this gap is made up of women who have been forced out of paid employment due to widely-held, harmful stereotypes that the ideal employee is male, preferably with no children, and available to work long hours at the drop of a hat.
And that therefore, when a woman becomes a mother she is no longer considered valuable to an organisation — unless of course, she is available to work full time — and some.
Even then, many managers are sceptical. A friend told me that at a recent interview she was asked by the owner of the business what she would do if her children were sick. He was afraid to employ her due to the simple fact she was a mother.
Unless such outdated and harmful stereotypes are dramatically changed, mothers are going to continue to be excluded from paid employment to the detriment of these women, their families, the workforce and the economy.
At the same time, we need to see a dramatic shift in attitudes towards flexible working arrangements and the idea that a productive employee must be visible and in the office, ideally five days a week; oh, and that having two people share one role is not an unworkable proposition.
I was once approached by a company that is publicly perceived as an organisation that cares about women and their rights, to apply for a job there. They specifically wanted a mother who could contribute to the public conversation about motherhood. They also wanted her to work five days a week.
Despite being a strong candidate, they would not consider a job share arrangement. If an organisation that is supposed to care about women is not willing to accommodate a working mother, what hope have we got?
Not a lot, it seems. In 2014, Australia, along with other G20 members, committed to reduce the gap in workforce participation rates between men and women by 25 per cent by 2025.
However, an Intergeneration Report released last year revealed it is unlikely to meet this target even in 40 years. Rather, the current gap is projected to narrow by less than 10 per cent by 2055.
As Louise said to me over lunch a couple of weeks back, “When women become pregnant, they go off to have children, not to die.’’