Why parental leave is not a ‘women’s only’ issue

If brands are serious about closing the gender pay gap and promoting more women to boards they must be transparent in their support of parents who want to balance family life with a fulfilling career.

Aviva offers equal parental leave to male and female employees.

Today, many brands will be ramping up their efforts to show support for women to mark International Women’s Day (8 March), and while some genuinely shine a light on how they are looking to drive equality, other activity is more fluff than substance.

One way brands can take positive, long-term action is by addressing their approach to parental leave and flexible working given an estimated 54,000 women a year lose their jobs in the UK as a direct result of pregnancy or maternity.

The research, conducted by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), finds one in nine women have been fired or made redundant when they returned to work after having a child or were treated so badly they felt forced to leave their job.

This number could, in fact, be even higher given that non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are commonly used to silence women in pregnancy and maternity discrimination cases, according to campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed.

On 25 January, the government launched a consultation proposing that the legal protection against redundancy for pregnant women and new mothers on maternity leave should be extended to six months after they return to work. The same protection could also be given to parents returning from adoption leave or shared parental leave.

The government’s interest in protecting women against maternity discrimination comes a year after the Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed 36% of private sector employers think it is reasonable to ask women about their future plans to have children during the recruitment process.

It’s broader than maternity and paternity leave. It’s about women – and men – in the workplace being able to be parents and not having parenthood impacting their career.

Otto Rosenberger, Iglu

The survey of 1,106 senior decision makers finds 59% of employers believe a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process, while 46% think it is reasonable to ask women if they have young children when recruiting.

Helen Tupper, co-founder and CEO of career development training business Amazing If,  went through the interview process for her role as evangelism marketing director at Microsoft in 2016 when she was pregnant with her second child. Upon accepting the role, Tupper went on maternity leave four months later.

She shared the fact she was pregnant during the interview process, in part to understand how they would respond, but also because she would have felt inauthentic having to “hide” her pregnancy.

“I was completely in my rights [not to disclose] but it didn’t feel authentic for me to hide this. The secondary thing was actually, if they responded negatively to it, was that the kind of employer I wanted to work for anyway?” says Tupper.

“Their response was amazing. It was almost like ‘thank you for telling us, but you didn’t have to and it’s not a problem at all. We’re hiring you for your potential and your impact, and congratulations’. There was not even a moment of raised eyebrows or anything.”

While Tupper explains that her pregnancy made no difference to her transition into the business, she recognises some people do experience bias, which can only be eradicated by encouraging more transparent conversations about flexible policies.

“It’s not helpful when there are rumours of ‘did you know that person gets to come in at 10am?’. It’s much better to say, as a manager in an organisation, ‘we have a variety of policies that are as individual as you are, talk to us and we’ll try to make something work and it’s not going to be some secret’,” says Tupper.

READ MORE: Nationwide’s CMO – workplace equality can help stem marketing’s looming recruitment crisis

Talent first

The BEIS research confirms that bias does exist when it comes to mothers taking parental leave. Some 41% of employers argue pregnancy in the workplace incurs ‘an unnecessary cost burden’.

Close to a third of employers also believe pregnant women and new mothers are ‘generally less interested in career progression’ compared to other employees and more than half (51%) acknowledge there is sometimes resentment among other employees towards women who are pregnant or on maternity leave.

Katy Fridman was working as marketing director for Microsoft Advertising when she had her first child. She was aware there was going to be a restructure when she went on leave, but on her return she found it difficult to make her role work flexibly and as a result took redundancy.

“My experiences weren’t great because I felt a company needs to support someone coming back into the workplace who has worked their up to such a senior level and for me that was really frustrating,” Fridman explains.

“Then I went on a mission to find a senior role in marketing that paid the amount of money I was paid before, but I found it really challenging. Marketing is not renowned for being a flexible environment.”

Last March, Fridman set up Flexible Working for Mum’s Like Me, group to connect women to flexible roles, which now has close to 20,000 members. She gets requests from marketing directors and CMOs who, despite their experience, cannot find flexible jobs that work for them.

“I think there’s something incredibly wrong with our economy and workplace if these women can’t get back into jobs with the experience they’ve got, because they had a child. It’s unacceptable,” says Fridman.

READ MORE: Ending the stigma of taking a career break

Transparency needed

Companies employing more than 250 people could be forced to publish their parental leave policies online to make their position clear to potential employees, under plans proposed by Liberal Democrat MP, Jo Swinson. In September, 10 large organisations agreed to publish their policies online, including Direct Line Group, Santander and RBS.

Some 91% of women support this proposal, according to a Mumsnet survey of more than 1,000 mums with children under 18 or women considering having a family, carried out in February. The research finds 66% of women would not ask about parental leave policies during an interview for fear it would give a negative impression, 57% would not ask once they were offered the job and 40% would not even inquire once they were employed.

Marketing consultant Andi Sumner welcomes any move towards transparency if it stops parental leave being a taboo subject.

“It is a stage in life we go through and it affects both men and women, and it just needs to stop being taboo,” she insists.

She believes the topic needs to be discussed more openly and urges companies to include their parental leave policy within their benefits package as standard.

If we encourage men to take on more of the pressure that comes with having a family then you lessen it for their partner, which allows them to go forward.

Ravleen Beeston, Microsoft

Vicky Drummond, senior marketing manager at John Lewis, had a positive experience while on maternity leave, gaining promotion to her current role during her time away from the business. While her new role is flexible, she understands why other marketers might experience feelings of “fear and anxiousness” about being left behind.

“If you took a year out in something like social, all the algorithms will have changed, there will have been updates, new functionality and technology you’ve suddenly missed and you’re playing catch up. It’s not impossible, but I do think within marketing it is a challenge to make sure you’re not getting left behind,” she explains.

She feels in general the “muddy and murky” language used in some maternity leave policies needs to change or parents will end up sticking with the status quo rather than exploring shared parental leave. She also believes organisations could do more to celebrate people who have taken shared parental leave.

Sumner remembers apologising when she announced she was pregnant because she thought it would cause the company hassle. Then when she returned she didn’t have the same remit of responsibilities, because new people employed in her absence had taken on some of her tasks.

However, since becoming a parent Sumner says she is more productive and less risk averse, which is why she believes having parents on your team can only be good for business.

READ MORE: Salary Survey 2019 – Brands’ sluggish response to the gender pay gap is failing female marketers

Flexibility for all

To open up workplaces for parents, companies need to address how to promote flexible working for all. Ravleen Beeston, head of UK for Microsoft Advertising, describes the year and a half after she returned from her first maternity leave as the “steepest trajectory” of her career, after she was asked to join the leadership team despite working four days a week.

Beeston’s boss asked her to trial the role for six months, while promising the business would respect her four-day arrangement.

“It was a real shift for me in terms of thinking about how I best manage my time and what I do across the business. Because the business was allowing me to have a successful career, and be able to manage my life outside work, it made me want to work harder,” she recalls.

Beeston openly asked why more men do not talk about working flexibly, especially given there are so many fathers in the Microsoft organisation. She dared the men listening to ask the question, promising not to say no to their requests. Within two weeks two men had come forward with requests.

“This is the only way we make it better for the women in our industry, because if we encourage men to take on more of the pressure that comes with having a family then you lessen it for their partner, which allows them to go forward,” she explains.

Beeston sees a wider shift happening as people redefine what the working world should look like, although she believes the management layer in organisations needs to challenge their thinking around flexibility or risk not being able to attract new talent.

“That is the goal,” she states. “It’s not just about maternity leave, paternity leave and flexible working, it’s about bringing practices into your organisation that get you ready for how people will want to work in the future.”

READ MORE: Salary Survey 2019 – Flexible working and career breaks

New ways of working

Kirsteen Fox, marketing director at at travel company Iglu, says being able to work flexibly is one of the reasons she has stayed in the business for close to 20 years.

She came back full time after her first child, and during her second pregnancy decided to return three days a week on flexible hours. Having previously served as head of marketing, Fox suggested she could apply her digital skills to a newly created role of marketing development manager, specialising in SEO. Her title changed, but Fox retained her salary level and status.

After three years working in the marketing development position she built her hours up to four days a week and was reappointed head of marketing. Fox was then promoted again to marketing director and now works four and a half days.

This is a social problem, this is not a mums’ problem and that’s the thing that needs to change.

Katy Fridman, Flexible Working for Mum’s Like Me

“I presented it as ‘I would like to do this and it’s a niche and it will work with flexible working’,” she explains. “They said they’d rather I did that than leave, and at the same time I did always say my decision was to come back and increase my hours over time. When I was doing three days a week there was a period I was purely at home and then in the office two days a week and one day at home, so it was truly flexible.”

Iglu chief operating officer, Ottokar Rosenberger, is passionate about promoting women in business and eradicating the penalty pregnancy can pose to a marketer’s career. He explains that Iglu offers flexible working for all and within an organisation of 450 people, more than 90 employees work from home.

However, despite wider adoption of flexible working, Rosenberger is clear the issue of equality around parental leave has not gone away.

“It’s broader than maternity and paternity leave. It’s about women – and men – in the workplace being able to be parents and not having parenthood impacting their career,” he explains.

“I think the responsibility lies with managers. Anyone who has people responsibility needs to make sure in their team and their company that [maternity leave] goes away as something we talk about in apologetic and negative terms. We need to encourage the right behaviour.”

Rosenberger also believes by encouraging men to take leave and highlighting role models within the business that do, more of them will take it up.

Equality achieved

Levelling the playing field on parental leave will go a long way to narrowing the gender pay gap and giving women the space and time to rise through the ranks.

This is the thinking at Aviva, which in November 2017 introduced equal parental leave, entitling all male and female employees up to 12 months leave, with six months at full pay. This means fathers do not have to share their wife or partner’s leave and can be off work at the same time.

All Aviva employees are eligible regardless of gender, sexual orientation or whether they became a parent through birth, adoption or surrogacy, and the scheme is open from their first day at the company. Parents can then opt for a phased return to work, where they are given five hours of leave a week for the first 12 weeks.

So far some 67% of new dads working at Aviva have taken six months off, while a further 95% have taken more than the statutory two weeks paid paternity leave.

Father of twin boys, Mark Jones is a global inclusion partner at Aviva and had only been in the business four months when he discovered his wife was pregnant.

Now five months into his equal parental leave, Jones describes Aviva’s policy as a “game changer”, which shows the company is serious about promoting equal opportunities.

“I couldn’t imagine not having done it,” he explains. “It is an attraction piece along with the rest of our rewards package. Why wouldn’t other firms do it? It’s about wellbeing, mental health, bringing your true self to work.”

The policy is certainly helping Aviva stand out as an employer brand. Employee engagement and wellbeing metrics score higher for those who have taken part in parental leave across the company globally, while these people also showed increased advocacy and motivation.

However, while businesses like Aviva are leading the way towards inclusivity, there is still a long way to go to gender neutralise the issue of parental leave, Katy Fridman says.

“I’m tired of talking about mums. It’s not a mums’ issue. This is a much bigger issue, it’s about general inclusivity and flexibility for all,” she adds. “This is a social problem, this is not a mums’ problem and that’s the thing that needs to change. If we continue to make it a women’s problem nothing will ever change.”

Useful resources


Backed by sponsor Diageo, the #CreativeComeback ‘returners’ scheme developed by Creative Equals supports women in the creative industries returning to work after a career break of at least 12 months.

The 50 women selected will take part in an eight-day training programme, the first week of which will get them up to speed on the latest creative and tech developments. During the second week they will work on briefs for Diageo brands Baileys and Guinness, before enrolling on a four-day programme in Manchester (19 to 22 March).

The returners will then go on a two- to six-week placement or take on a flexible job with one of Creative Equals’ founding partners.

Working Forward

Spearheaded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Working Forward is a free to join nationwide campaign supporting pregnant women and new parents at work. Backed by brands such as Nationwide, Royal Mail and Transport for London, Working Forward encourages companies to pledge to take action in four key areas: leadership, employee confidence, supporting line managers and flexible working.


This programme aims to bridge the gap between employers and marketers looking to return to work after a career break.

It typically includes two weeks of mentoring, skills assessment and upskilling, followed by a three-month paid ‘returnship’ with companies including long-term partner Golin PR, HP, Save the Children and Chelsea FC.