This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: ‘Is maternity leave still a career killer?’

Janine Chamberlin
Over the last, let’s say, 10 years, I have had very regular requests from women who were thinking of starting a family or who were pregnant to have a chat and they always expressed their fear around “What’s gonna happen when I go on maternity leave? Is my job still going to be there when I come back? Will it impact my career?” And I’ve always said, “Nothing to worry about. Look at me, I’ve done this X many years ago. I came back from maternity leave and have been able to continue to progress in my career”. And then it really struck me that when I was pregnant again, I felt the same anxiety that other women have expressed with me over the last 10 years. I mean, the guilt is undeniable, isn’t it? Because when you’re at work, you feel guilty about what might be happening at home. And when you’re at home, you feel guilty about what might be happening at work.

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Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to Working It with me, Isabel Berwick. Today we’re talking about maternity leave and coming back to work after having a baby. A lot of women know it has a negative impact on their careers and there are many reasons for that. Taking time off from work is the obvious one, but there is still a lingering sense of stigma, too. To find out more, I talked to Janine Chamberlin, UK country manager at the social platform LinkedIn. Janine is about to go on maternity leave with her second child and she has strong views about the enduring stigma around pregnancy in the workplace and mothers returning from maternity leave.

Janine Chamberlin
I think partially it is because taking time out of the workplace, there are still a lot of assumptions being made about parents taking time out and what that does to their ambitions in the workplace. I have experienced this with colleagues. Assumptions are made about women who have children and what this does to their sort of ambition at work. I remember very clearly when I came back from my first maternity leave, there were some perceptions that maybe I wasn’t going to be interested in doing an international role that would include a level of travel. Whereas I was actually very interested in doing that. But the assumption that was made that having just returned from maternity leave, that probably wasn’t a good fit for me at the time. Luckily, I was able to talk about that at work and we could work these things out, but I think it does definitely exist that people just have a different perspective of parents in the workplace.

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Isabel Berwick
To discuss all of this, I’m joined by my FT colleague Sarah O’Connor, who’s a columnist and associate editor. Sarah, you write a lot about the workplace and employment. How do you think things are going in the workplace at the moment? I mean, we have these rights to come back from maternity leave and there’s a new right coming to flexible work. But are they enforced?

Sarah O’Connor
Yeah, I wasn’t so much worried about the stigma. Luckily for me, by the time I went on maternity leave, there had been so many women at the FT, some right at the kind of top of their profession who had been on mat leave and had come back and have continued to have good careers. I was more just worried, to be honest, that I would somehow kind of lose my edge, that having been away for quite a long time, suddenly having new priorities, probably being massively sleep-deprived, that I just wouldn’t really be capable of doing the job anymore. And actually, something that the FT did really well was they had these coaching sessions. So women who were on maternity leave so you could come in and use some of your keeping-in-touch hours to meet one of these coaches. I was a bit sceptical about it, to begin with. I wasn’t really sure what on earth she could say that would be helpful, but it was almost like having a free counselling session and she just kind of listened very deeply and I remember saying to her that I was . . . that this was my big fear that I just wouldn’t necessarily be capable of doing the job. I was also coming back to a bit of a promotion, which was nice but nerve-racking. And she said, “You know, actually what women often find is when they come back, they discover they’re better at their job. Something’s shifted, and actually, they find that they’re more capable than ever”. And I did find that actually, I found that I had a different sense of confidence when I came back. So I always say to women who are nervous that, you know, don’t be because it isn’t necessarily a bad thing for your career at all.

Isabel Berwick
I think there is that sort of clarity that you have when you have a small child. You know, you’re on a very tight schedule. You haven’t got time to muck around or do perhaps some of the time-wasting things that other people in the office do.

Sarah O’Connor
(Laughter) Yeah.

Isabel Berwick
But I suppose there is also that recognition that it’s a different state when you’re pregnant and when you come back from maternity leave, allowances have to be made. You’re in a different place in your life. And I guess some employers don’t make that allowance. And I know there’s a campaign group called Pregnant then Screwed in the UK who tell us that by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old, her pay is 33 per cent less per hour than a man’s. So there are very negative effects on a lot of women’s career progression and pay. Is the main reason for that the fact that more women work part-time? How does this sort of gap that appears in women’s careers happen when they come back from maternity leave?

Sarah O’Connor
Yeah, there’ve been a lot of really good studies into this now and it is quite striking. So you see that the gender pay gap between men and women up until the point where they have children is pretty small these days. And what gap does exist is normally based on different sectors that they’re in or different occupations. But then, as you say, from the point of having a child, basically that gap starts to get bigger and bigger. There has been some good work sort of trying to disaggregate exactly what’s going on. Part of it is that women are more likely to work part-time afterwards. But even if you look at their pay per hour, you can see that it starts slipping further and further behind men. Basically what happens is that when you do go part-time or when you become a mother and you’re no longer sort of willing or able to do the super long-hours jobs, the ones that are very demanding that expect you to be on call at all moments, often puts your career in a bit of a slow lane. So you either miss out on promotions or you end up switching employers to one that maybe offers more flexible hours or more reasonable hours but doesn’t necessarily offer the big bucks anymore. And so there’s a real sort of penalty to going part-time in our labour market that is more than just the fact that you’re working fewer hours.

Isabel Berwick
One of the things you just touched on there is something that I think is interesting for our listeners. You have talked about the concept of greedy work, very long-hours work and that effect on mothers. Could you tell us a little bit about what that is and how it impacts women particularly?

Sarah O’Connor
Yeah. So this was a term that was popularised by an economist at Harvard called Claudia Goldin. And she has done a lot of really interesting studies where she follows kind of cohorts of men and women who graduate from elite business schools, say, or who start working in elite law firms. So these are men and women who are high-earners, have high potential and who to begin with are earning very similar amounts. And she tracks the exact trajectory that we’ve just discussed, that at the point that they have children, becoming a father has no influence whatsoever on a man’s pay. But becoming a mother really does have an influence on a woman’s pay. And her conclusion is that too many of these jobs are greedy. So they demand a huge amount of your time. They basically want to have you on call all the time. And for a couple to both have greedy jobs is simply not compatible with having a child and all of the kind of things that that entails. You know, sometimes they’re suddenly sick. Sometimes you have to go pick them up from school early. You know, there are all kinds of things where actually you need to be able to put your family first sometimes. And these jobs simply don’t allow that space. And so what happens is that if you’re in a couple where you were both in one of those greedy jobs and one person has to take a step away and to do a job that’s less greedy and those less greedy jobs just don’t pay the same kind of high bucks. So that’s her focus, which is very much on high-end professional jobs. But I would say that there’s actually a similar thing that happens in all kinds of different jobs, including lower-paid jobs as well. You see more women going part-time, partly because they can’t afford to be on call to be dragged in to do the weekend shifts or whatever. And that going part-time basically allows you to sort of protect a certain amount of time for yourself and for your family.

Isabel Berwick
I talked to Janine, actually, about what LinkedIn is doing. There’s a lot of workplace research among users on the platform. And I asked her what its findings tell us about why mothers are leaving their employer or why they drop out of the workforce altogether.

Janine Chamberlin
Notably, in the last couple of years, we’ve done a lot of research around flexibility in the workplace. So what we found is that more than half of working women in the UK have actually considered leaving their role or left their role because there wasn’t enough flexibility at work. And obviously, flexibility isn’t just about where you work, it’s about the hours that you work — it’s potentially doing a four-day week. All of those different things are included in flexibility. And when that flexibility isn’t being offered, it makes it incredibly hard for parents because they’re juggling all these additional responsibilities. And what we’ve seen in the last few years as a result of the pandemic, largely, a lot more flexibility was introduced into the workplace, including completely remote work — which we can see that it’s mostly women who apply for those remote roles. It doesn’t mean that men don’t apply for it, by the way, but it’s just much more appealing to women to work completely remotely. But we can start to see that the trend is essentially going down. January 2022, almost a fifth of jobs were posted as remote jobs, and now that’s gone down to just over 10%. So employers are not necessarily offering the kind of flexibility that notably women are looking for, and that is making women leave the workplace because it’s hard to juggle all of the responsibilities at the same time.

Isabel Berwick
So the pandemic sort of opened up possibilities, but it sounds like some of those are closing quite quickly.

Janine Chamberlin
There is definitely a concern. That is the trend from a remote job’s perspective. There’s been a number of companies who have publicly also shared that they are asking people to come back into the office instead of working at home, for example. I think a lot of companies are offering hybrid options, which means that somebody can work part of the time in the office, part of the time at home. But when there are some rules set around that, which is, for example, you have to be in the office on Tuesday and Thursday, that simply doesn’t work for everyone. What we can also see in some of the research is that more than a third of employees would actually quit their job if they were asked to return to the office full-time. And I think this is where companies need to look at how does the system work? So in what way does a manager, for example, assign a stretch project to someone? In what way does a manager consider promotions and pay increases? And if that is only based on whomever is nearest to them or whomever is the best at speaking up, then ultimately proximity bias is going to become a real big problem. So it’s something that employers need to be aware of. And I think a lot of investment that I have seen also in the last couple of years is going into training managers to understand how do I manage a hybrid team or a hybrid workforce.

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Isabel Berwick
Sarah, I really was interested in what Janine was saying there about flexibility being absolutely key, particularly for women in work and remote work. I mean, you’ve written about this fairly recently about the benefits of flexible work for everyone. What do you think the main reasons are?

Sarah O’Connor
Yeah, I suppose it kind of annoyed me sometimes when work is often portrayed as a women’s issue or an issue around reducing the gender pay gap or getting more women into top jobs. I mean, it is, of course, that. But it’s not as if men wouldn’t also benefit from more flexible work. And in fact, there are lots of surveys out there to suggest that both men and women would welcome the opportunity to have more flexibility and it would enable more equal parenting. It would stop that kind of invidious choice that couples have to make where one has to stay full-time in a greedy job and the other one has to take a step back. So yeah, I think it shouldn’t be seen as just a fight for women. Also, of course, you know, we’re having so many more caring responsibilities later in life as well. When you get to middle age, often you have elderly parents who need care. Those sorts of responsibilities are only going to grow as our population ages. So I think this is something that should be taken out of the women box and put into the humanity box.

Isabel Berwick
Exactly. I think a lot of these issues start off with women and then can be expanded out. But I think the point about caring is very useful. You know, what is helpful for people on maternity leave is also helpful for people with caring responsibilities. And I think that hasn’t really been brought out enough and . . . 

Sarah O’Connor
Yeah.

Isabel Berwick
Perhaps we’ll return to it on the podcast another time. But that was something Janine talked about there, about the number of remote jobs being advertised going down.

Sarah O’Connor
Mmm.

Isabel Berwick
Do you think there’s a danger as we head into hard economic times that employers will try to enforce more in-office attendance or be less flexible?

Sarah O’Connor
It has been interesting. If you look at the labour force data, at least in the UK, what we did see after the pandemic was that the proportion of women who weren’t working at all because they were looking after family actually fell quite a lot. And no one knows for sure why. But I think it might well be that it just became more plausible to do a job that was fully remote and therefore take part in the labour force, even if not in the way that people might have been doing before the pandemic. So if all of that starts to fall away, I think that would be a shame. More realistically, of course, I think a lot of employers are gonna end up in this sort of hybrid space, which is probably better than nothing.

Isabel Berwick
Yeah, I think perhaps predictability is as much a part of it as anything else.

Sarah O’Connor
Yeah.

Isabel Berwick
I just think whatever problems we have now, they’re so much better than they were when I was on maternity leave and when I came back and had small kids, I was literally sweating to collect my kids at six from nursery every day.

Sarah O’Connor
Yeah.

Isabel Berwick
 . . . because I left work late every day because I had a lot of work to do and it wasn’t the done thing to leave early.

Sarah O’Connor
Yeah.

Isabel Berwick
So I think the culture shift has been profound, particularly in professional environments . . . 

Sarah O’Connor
Mmm.

Isabel Berwick
And I really hope it doesn’t go back. And I talked to Janine about the differences between her experience now against her previous maternity leave, which was 12 years ago.

Janine Chamberlin
When I had my first pregnancy, one of my male colleagues was also expecting their child. And I remember at the time, he got two weeks off work, obviously very different compared to the time that I could take off work. And if you look at it now, I see many of my male colleagues taking at least a couple of months. There’s a lot of flexibility in terms of how men can take that leave internally for us at LinkedIn. What I’m seeing on the platform and just generally in society, I think a) it has become much more accepted and normal that men take a longer time out of work. I remember from some time ago there were — and there still are, obviously — countries where paternity leave is much more generous, dare I say it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always accepted. So it doesn’t mean that if a man can have six or 12 months paternity leave, that they also actually take that. And I think that’s really changing where it becomes much more encouraged and accepted for men to take that time off and really use it to bond with their children. That in itself will have a big impact on mothers in the workplace as well, because it means that not all the responsibility sits with one gender, but it really becomes a much more equal world.

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Isabel Berwick
I’m really glad we’ve got on to this paternity or shared parental leave piece, because I’ve read lots of things over the years suggesting that this is the absolute key to equality in the workplace. Would you agree, Sarah?

Sarah O’Connor
I think better paternity leave is key. Shared parental leave, I mean, the UK introduced it maybe ten years ago, something like that. And it hasn’t really taken off, has it? I mean, not anywhere near as much as people hoped it would. And I think the problem is the way that a lot of employers have structured it. They might enhance maternity pay but then not offer the same for men taking shared parental leave. Or there might be restrictions on when exactly you can take it, that you have to take it straight after the baby’s born, when actually for many couples it makes more sense for the women to take the first three or six months and then handover to the man. But I think it is striking that it hasn’t been as transformative as the people who came up with that policy sort of hoped it would be. Personally, I think a better option is what they do in places like Sweden, which is just have a use it or lose it paternity policy — which is quite generous. And I think that tends to lead to many more men actually taking the time.

Isabel Berwick
So the flexibility is key.

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Pregnancy and maternity leave and coming back to work are such pivotal moments in any woman’s career. I can remember it really vividly, even though it was a very long time ago. And in those days I was only allowed six months off for each of my children. I had to come back to work, otherwise I wasn’t guaranteed to get my job back. So, my God, things have changed since then and thank goodness they have, very much for the better. But it’s all about what happens afterwards, isn’t it? It’s about how women are supported in their careers when they get back to work. And it’s also about equality of opportunity. And there was an EU survey that stuck with me, actually. I think it was from 2018 that showed that where men took parental leave as well as women, women’s job opportunities improved and the gender pay gap decreased. So I remain convinced that the key to everyone’s progression at work is men’s participation in maternity/paternity leave and in child-rearing and when you come back to work.

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Isabel Berwick
With thanks to Janine Chamberlin and Sarah O’Connor for this episode. If you’re enjoying the podcast, we’d really appreciate it if you left us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And please do get in touch with us. We want to hear from you and we’re at workingit@ft.com or with me Isabel Berwick on LinkedIn. And if you’re an FT subscriber, please sign up for our Working It newsletter for some behind-the-scenes extras from the podcast and exclusive stories you won’t see anywhere else. Sign up at FT.com/newsletters.

Working It is produced by Novel for the Financial Times. Thanks to the producer, Flo de Schlichting, executive producer Jo Wheeler, production assistance from Amalie Sortland and mix from Chris O’Shaughnessy. From the FT, we have editorial direction from Manuela Saragosa. Thanks for listening.

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