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Feminism: Sex & gender discussions

The effect of having children on a woman's career

98 replies

MediumOrchid · 20/09/2011 14:01

Can you help me get my head around this issue please? Had an argument discussion with my dh about this and am now confused and need to solidify what I think.

Imagine a woman has a career with good prospects, then leaves to have children. She has 3 children reasonably close together, breastfeeds them and takes the best part of a year off for each, with ~ a year working part time in between. Is it reasonable to expect that this time not working will have a detrimental effect on her career, and therefore she will never reach the top of her company like she would have if she hadn't had children, or is this unfair? If it is unfair, what could be done to make it fairer, bearing in mind she wanted to breastfeed her children and wanted to spend the majority of each child's first year with them?

This is a hypothetical women btw as I don't have children yet.

OP posts:
SybilBeddows · 20/09/2011 14:14

It is reasonable to expect that she won't have progressed in her career in the time she's not actually working at it, so colleagues who were at the same level may get promoted above her. What is not reasonable is for the time out to have a disproportionate effect on her career, which is what often happens: women who have taken career breaks find themselves sidelined, discriminated against, passed over for promotion, etc, once they are back at work.

AMumInScotland · 20/09/2011 14:22

It's reasonable that it will have a delaying effect on her career - each year out, and the years of part-time work, are likely to mean she will miss out on promotions over that period which she might reasonably have expected to get if she was working fulltime.

But it shouldn't stop her then moving upwards at a similar rate once she is back fulltime, assuming some time to "catch up" with new developments in her area, and to convince colleagues/managers that she is committed to her work.

The difficulty is often that women, even when they are back fulltime, are more likely to be the ones taking time off for sick children, leaving early to cover childcare issues, etc, and it can therefore be more difficult for them to get promotions as they are not seen to be fully committed to their job.

SybilBeddows · 20/09/2011 14:29

In my old profession, academia, they are currently proposing to only allow women who have taken maternity leave to be allowed a reduced research output for the 5 year period when their maternity leave fell if they have taken more than 14 months leave. So someone can have had 2 babies and taken 12 months off work and yet still be expected to have done as much research as colleagues who have been at work in that time. Thus women who have had maternity leave will be expected to have had 20% higher productivity in the time they were at work, than everyone else, and will be penalised if not; many will lose their jobs over it.

That is one example of the kind of subtle discrimination that penalises women who take time off to have children and makes the penalty higher than you would expect from the actual time they have taken off.

SybilBeddows · 20/09/2011 14:33

MuminScotland's point about perceptions of commitment is a good one. In 'Delusions of Gender' by Cordelia Fine, 'paper mothers' research is described, where employers were shown identical CVs of women with and without children, and the women with children were rated by the employers as significantly less committed to their careers than those without, despite the fact that the CVs were absolutely identical apart from the mention of children. Shock

SurprisEs · 20/09/2011 14:36

Two weeks ago I was fired for being pregnant. All said.

SybilBeddows · 20/09/2011 14:37

oh God, I'm so sorry SurpriseEs. Are you ok?

SurprisEs · 20/09/2011 14:46

I am now. Kind of got over it but I was treated with the upmost disrespect.

3 Monday's ago I was told by my boss "this is your last week" just like that.
On my lunch he came to talk to me and said he needed someone fit for Christmas (I was a waitress) and my tiredness was bringing the team down. "I'll give you a job if you come back in a year". The word pregnancy was never mentioned but it is obvious. I had no warnings or disciplinaries.

On my last day I asked him for my letter of dismissal and was told I would not be paid my week in hand (£225) unless I signed a letter saying I quit.

I live in a studio flat with DH and DD and would have never got pregnant if I wasn't sure we could afford to move. Now that I'm unemployed I dunno what to do. And who's going to give me a job knowing I'll be off soon? Baby is due in April 2012.

But I'm not angry anymore, just getting on with it I suppose.

SybilBeddows · 20/09/2011 14:52

bloody hell.
They always get away with it because women who are pregnant/exhausted/broke are the last people in the world to be in a position to incur the cost and stress of taking them to court.

Hope something comes up for you.

SurprisEs · 20/09/2011 14:55

I've been criticised a lit for not taking action, but as you said I am tired, stressed and broke.
Thanks for the good luck wishes.

I just wanted OP husband to realise by my post that women with children are at a disadvantage in the work place.

SybilBeddows · 20/09/2011 15:02

I think very few pregnant women are in a position to take action. When you are pregnant your first thought is for the welfare of the baby and you tend to feel instinctively that you need to protect yourself from stress.

I think there's a popular view that because we have laws in place to protect pregnant women, pregnant women don't get discriminated against because if they did they would simply sue their employers. In practice most women aren't in a position to sue their employers so they put it behind them. It happens at all sorts of workplaces - I was talking to a doctor recently who was sacked for being pregnant Shock

SurprisEs · 20/09/2011 15:13

Terrible. And it is your word against the employer. They can come up with all sorts of things if they feel the need to. As well as forcing other people to witness for them.

nenevomito · 20/09/2011 15:23

I think that a woman should have the same opportunities as someone with the same skills and experience as she does regardless of whether she's had maternity leave.

If you take three years off, you should expect that you are three years behind colleagues who had not taken that time off HOWEVER you should then be given the same opportunities to progress as they have so you can catch up/take same path. Maternity leave should not be a bar to future development.

SurprisEs - I am appalled you were treated like that, but not surprised. I was treated appallingly when I was pregnant and then returned to work after my first child (private sector) The fact is that there are ways and means to break maternity laws and only the strongest can face them down. Objectively I should have gone for constructive dismissal following on from how I was treated by them, but I left instead.

My career hasn't suffered for having children, but that is not due to the benevolence of my first employer.

BettySwollocksandaCrustyRack · 20/09/2011 15:28

I have definately been put to the bottom of the pile at work since I had my DS who is now 9. I worked full time at the same company for 5 years before I got pg, I had 4 months off when DS was born and came back to work 3 days per week. Whilst I was on maternity leave they implemented private health care and pensions......I get neither as I am part time (I work 4.5 hours per week shy if full time). I have mentioned numerous times I think it is very very unfair of them not to cover my health (we are a small company, only 4 and the dog) and I get told that when I am full time I will get the cover!

I am a really reliable worker, have prob only had a handful of days off with DS in 9 years and I do my job well but I still feel I have been pushed to the back of the queue purely because I am a mother. Sad but true!

HereBeBolloX · 20/09/2011 16:18

This is one of the reasons we need paternity laws and fathers to ahve the right to ask for part time work just as mothers do.

I would expect that woman to get to the top 3 years after anyone who hasn't taken maternity leave. Not never to get to the top, which is what happens in practice.

What needs to happen, is for men to start being the contact point for the school, for men to be responsible for the school run, for men to go part time and downshift their careers, so that women and men compete in the workplace on an even playing field.

The first step to that, is proper paid paternity leave after the mother has returned to work (if that's what she's doing), so that men learn to look after their children by themselves and learn to take responsibility for their day to day care. Employers would need to adjust working patterns etc., if most of their workforce with children did this instead of just half of them.

brawhen · 20/09/2011 16:29

Depends what you mean by "is it reasonable to expect".

All other things being equal, it is NOT reasonable that this should make a difference beyond counting the actual time taken off. But in real life it DOES make a difference -both because of discrimination by employer and because of effects of woman taking on more family responsibilities, and because of effects of pregnancy/having children on women's physical and mental health. So you might be very reasonable to factor this in when thinking forward in your career expectations.

IME, impact of having children was like a bomb hitting my career. In my case, main issues were realisticness of pursuing my previous career in a part-time capacity, and physical (and some mental) impact of pregnancy.

LeggyBlondeNE · 20/09/2011 16:29

Sybil - I saw you post about this elsewhere. Do you know if UCU have taken it up? (I may have already asked but can't remember!) There's talk of me being entered into REF at a reduced rate if necessary, although I hope to get through my backlog of papers co-authors sat on while I was off!

chumble · 20/09/2011 16:45

I am watching this thread with interest as currently wrestling with this very issue.

Have two DC and am educated to masters level. Have stayed at home with aforementioned children and am now looking for flexible professional employment. Like looking for a needle in a haystack!

As main carer for my children (husband works away) I am sure this limits my choices....

Instead I am faced at looking at jobs for which I am overqualified and overskilled.

What a waste of five years higher education as well as years of experience.

I have had two children but I have not lost my abilities as a professional worker!!!

I personally think that the government is missing a large group of the workforce who only want flexibility in order to work.

I am committed and would ensure work was done but I also want the best for my children too.

Perhaps it is utopian but my professional career has all but disappeared.

SybilBeddows · 20/09/2011 16:49

LeggyBlonde - yes, UCU are objecting but some people think their response was not as strong as we would like. There's a thread in Off The Beaten Track.

edd1337 · 20/09/2011 17:00
MediumOrchid · 20/09/2011 17:12

Interesting - so if a woman takes 3 years off work to have children, she should expect to be 3 years behind her colleagues, but then to progress at the same rate. However, it seems that this does not always happen as there is often subconcious discrimination against working mothers.

What about the fact that very few women are in positions of very senior mangement, on the board of directors etc? Is this due not to the actual time out that women take, but the way they are viewed and treated when they return to work? Or should we conclude that not as many women want these senior positions as men? They would require long hours whih may not be compatible with a young family. I don't know, I'm rambling...

SurprisEs - so sorry to hear what happened, I agree that you should take it further but understand why you're not.

HereBeBolloX - I agree that part time working for men becoming more commonplace would be a good thing. It is not at all usual at the moment though.

OP posts:
WTFAmIDoing · 20/09/2011 17:15

Chumble - you've just written my post for me! Ditto.

I can't seem to find any solution at the moment...

edd1337 · 20/09/2011 17:16

Herebe? Wasn't a 6 month paternity leave plan proposed at some point? Can't remember


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Dozer · 20/09/2011 17:18

The problem isn't just the time off when each baby is tiny, it's what happens when you go back to work. Unless full-time and willing to work extra hours, it is hard to make progress.

I also think it comes down to the extent to which men are prepared to compromise their careers. For example chumble saying "my DH works away", i.e. her career is secondary to his, is really common. Or "we felt it was important for one of us to stay at home, and it made sense for this to be me cos I earn less" (then hard to find work after a long gap).

Often, the man is the higher earner before kids and then says he can't possibly go part-time, take time off or whatever because the money is needed, so the woman makes much bigger compromises in her working life. This is something I hadn't fully considered before having (2) kids, and it pisses me off!

reallytired · 20/09/2011 17:22

I think a lot depends on the career. Certainly in my experience IT jobs treat mothers attroiously. It is hard in careers where there is constant change and it often takes a couple of weeks to get up to speed after a years maternity.

I left my job because my employer made my life hell. I had to fight tooth and nail to get my job back and then I was bullied out of it. I took very little time off with the kids and my sick record (including days off with kids) was 3 days in one year.

Dozer · 20/09/2011 17:23

On the issue of senior positions requiring long hours, the senior positions need to be altered to allow people to do them within reasonable hours!

I fell out with a friend over this recently. She argued that a part-time mother in her husband's busy team at work (very large, profitable, private sector employer) was causing the rest of the team (including her DH) to have to work long hours because she could only work fixed hours. According to my friend, the woman should move to an easier job in a quieter area (and accept the impact on her career). I suggested that surely a large employer had the resources to bring more people into the team if the workload was too high; and that if her DH's hours were a problem (he's a parent too) he should raise this with them or make some changes. Cue big rant from her and me. Argh.

Think I took it personally as I'm a part-time worker trying really hard to progress. Avoiding the "good" (i.e. busy) jobs is not good for the CV, but it's not easy and attitudes like my friend's seem quite common.

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