My company is a little smaller than those featured this week in the FT Global 500. But it does have one thing in common with them. We employ a lot of women of childbearing age.
Currently, to the best of my knowledge, no fewer than four of our staff are expecting new cost centres this year. One of them is a man, and so he probably won’t be away from work for too long, but the other three have the right to stay away for up to a year and get their jobs back at the end of it. If they take their full maternity leave, they don’t need to give notice that they’re coming back to work (though the Central Office of Information’s Directgov website helpfully suggests that “it’s a good idea to do so”). If, on the other hand, they decide not to come back at all, they can take the year to which they are entitled and then give us “notice in the normal way”. Meanwhile, the business has two options: to spread the workload among others during their absence or hire temporary staff to cover.
It takes at least a year to learn to do what we do and be effective at doing it, so by the time we have trained someone, our staff member will - we hope - have returned. What is the solution? To staff up against the possibility of people going on maternity leave? That is effectively an insurance policy with a very expensive premium.
As it happens, I am in favour of maternity leave in principle, despite the burden it places on small businesses like ours. This is despite the fact that I was never very keen on it myself. I had tremendous difficulty coming to terms with the disruption that childbirth had on my life. I wanted children and wouldn’t send them back (even though more than half our disposable income is spent on housing, feeding, transporting and educating them), but the practical side of giving birth and then caring for small babies has never had much appeal.
When expecting Cost Centre #1, I attended antenatal classes at the Pineapple Dance Studios in South Kensington because the classes were at lunchtime and minimised my time away from the office. But I wasn’t a good pupil and was eventually expelled. One of the many reasons was my refusal to join in with “breathing practice”. As I explained to the French woman who taught us and who each week grew increasingly exasperated with me, I wasn’t going to take part in what looked to me like a very undignified activity. And anyway, I didn’t need to - I was planning to have an epidural put in at eight months and carry on with it in place.
But it is important for women to bond with their cost centres - you never know when it might be helpful. Last week, for instance. CC#1, having finished his AS exams, bleached his hair in such a manner as to make him look like an association footballer. The school pointed out that term had three weeks to run and he was in breach of the rules. They informed me that he had to get it sorted out - or be excluded.
As he is up for election to prefect in his final year, I decided acquiescence was the best strategy. I called and told him to go to the hairdresser.
I was busy, and in my rush I managed to offend him. This resulted in him bypassing the hairdresser and trying to solve the problem with a cheap DIY dye kit. This in turn led to his hair turning an interesting shade of burgundy.
Maybe if I had breastfed him for longer than 10 weeks in 1989 and taken more than two weeks off work on maternity leave, he would have been more likely to respond positively to my original entreaty to attend the hairdresser near his school, which would have cost £42. By the time I had brought him up to London to get his hair restored to an acceptable colour by my own hairdresser, the cost was more like £80.
There are moments when I look at the smiling, happy faces of my expectant staff and wonder how they will cope when confronted by an outraged housemaster along with an unrepentant and recalcitrant bleached blond teenager in 18 years’ time. I suspect these challenges are the same whether you are a working mother in a small company, or one in the Global 500.