Maternity leave and Covid-19: how ad land can eliminate the working mum ‘blind spot’
Becoming a parent can be an isolating experience at the best of times, not least in the midst of the worst public health crisis in modern history. Now more than ever, women from all backgrounds who have recently welcomed a new addition are concerned about their job security, finances and lack of access to childcare. So how can the ad industry ensure it doesn’t neglect its working mums and lose an entire generation of talent?
Since the start of the pandemic, advertising equality group Creative Equals has been hearing concerns around job and financial security for working mums on maternity leave.
Data from its C-19 Inclusion Pulse survey, which polled the ad industry in May, revealed that 83% of working mothers are worried about their financial future compared to 69% of men.
When asked whether they felt confident about remaining employed in the long-term, 58% of men indicated that they did, compared to 45% of women, 46% of Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) talent and an even lower number of working mums (32%) who shared their confidence.
With Covid-19 having ushered in rounds of redundancies across the country – UK employment dropped by 220,000 between April and June marking the largest quarterly fall since the 2009 recession – women on maternity leave aren’t just having to grapple with a lack of sleep and countless NHS pamphlets about feeding, they’re also facing off HR challenges.
Pregnant, then screwed?
Pregnant Then Screwed, a charity which offers support for women who have faced maternity or pregnancy discrimination, set up a dedicated Covid-19 helpline to support pregnant women and working mums at the start of the pandemic. It also runs a free legal advice line for women who believe they’ve faced bias in the workplace or unfairly selected for redundancy.
“We’ve experienced a 500% increase in calls to that line, and the stories we are hearing are shocking,” explains the pressure group’s chief executive and founder Joeli Brearley. She says the staggering demand for guidance has led it to run legal clinics on Instagram and launch an online ‘Redundancy Rehab’ course for mums and mums-to-be faced with losing their jobs.
Brearley says women on maternity leave face two key challenges right now; redundancies and lack of childcare provision. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) 54,000 women a year in Britain are pushed out of their jobs as a result of falling pregnant. This inequality has become even more pronounced thanks to Covid-19, with Pregnant Then Screwed’s recent study of 20,000 working mums finding women on maternity leave to be particularly susceptible to redundancy.
15% of mothers either have been made redundant or expect to be made redundant and of those, a shocking 46% have said that a lack of childcare provision played a role in their redundancy. What’s more, 72% of mums have had to work fewer hours because of childcare issues, and 65% of mothers who have been furloughed say a lack of childcare was the reason.
“It’s almost like the pandemic has given unscrupulous employers carte blanche to circumnavigate employment law. Women on maternity leave are being placed in an even more precarious position by their inability to secure childcare for their babies,” explains Brearley, pointing to further data that shows 25% of childcare providers don’t think they'll be able to stay open beyond December.
“The financial pressure the sector is under is immense and we will, unfortunately, see more closures – mainly because the financial support made to the sector has been paltry – there wasn’t a single mention of childcare in the chancellor’s summer statement.” She’s of the view that working mums have been “grossly neglected” by the government throughout the pandemic. “It took 23 years to increase maternal employment by just 14% and we risk undoing all of that progress because childcare and maternity discrimination sit firmly in the PM’s blindspot.” How then, can the ad industry ensure it’s not accused of the same?
Flexibility and forgoing ‘first day back’ jitters
Lorraine Jennings is director of culture change and wellbeing service at advertising charity Nabs. She agrees that childcare is a big issue now for working mums in ad land and says returning women are hopeful that that the new culture of working from home will aid their support to work without hindering their career options.
Along with Creative Equals, Nabs offers online one-to-one coaching and masterclasses that provide strategies and mindset tips for the transition back to the new world of work. These cover topics such as confidence, while a separate advice line offers help with contractual guidance, including flexible working requests. She advises that the best thing ad agencies can do to guarantee new mums don’t feel isolated right now is communicate.
“The transition process should be well-planned and agreed by both the employer and the returner. Communication between the employer, manager and returner are essential, keeping-in-touch days are there to support this transition and help plan for the return. With that, returners are more likely to feel supported and have the opportunity to tell their employers what they need and how together they can make this work,” she says. She adds that agencies need to remember the positive that has come out of this pandemic and that this year has shone a light on flexible working, proving it can work: “This is part of the psychological contract building trust and understanding with each other. Why wouldn’t this continue now?“
When Covid-19 hit Amber Faulkner, Publicis.Poke’s head of new business and marketing, had a nine-month-old baby and just three months of maternity left. She firmly agrees that the flexibility of returning to ‘work’ while actually being at home has “made the whole thing less daunting”.
“Working in new business, I was worried about how I’d deal with the inevitable late nights before a pitch. But working from home means I can feed and put my child to bed before cracking on with work. And I can go straight from my desk to my bed, without a late-night cab home.”
She says her agency’s “supportive culture” helped make the process run smoothly. “I worked with my CEO to agree a transition plan and for the month before my start date I joined a weekly team meeting and the all-agency Zoom get-togethers and arranged one-to-one catch ups with key people. “It made my return to work so much easier and by the time my official start date came, I was already in the swing of things and there were no ‘first day back at school’ jitters the night before.”
Sharing the load
For Pregnant Then Screwed’s Brearley, childcare is a real sticking point. “Working mums are angry right now, and they are not prepared to take this lying down. They are prepared to call out employers who act unfairly,” she asserts. “So its in an employers best interest to do the right thing; if a parent – not just a mother – is struggling with securing childcare, give them as much flexibility as they need. You will reap the rewards in loyalty and staff retention by supporting that employee when they most need it.”
To do this, she urges employers in ad land and beyond to commit to a long-term review of their family policies, arguing that the sole reason working mums continue to pick up the slack is that they don’t have “properly paid, properly ring fenced paternity leave” for dads and other parents. She urges agencies to ask the question of whether their policies or family-friendly or just mum-friendly? “We'll only see gender equality in the workplace when we support equal parenting in the home, too.”
Jade Tomlin, creative director at Tribal Worldwide, went back to work in the middle of lockdown six weeks after she and her wife became parents. For her, DDB’s shared parental leave policy has been invaluable.
“This scheme is mainly used to share maternity leave, so parents feel more equal in being the primary carer. For me as a non-biological parent, I felt conscious to make sure I bonded as much as possible with our son while he’s young. So, this scheme for me has really been a huge benefit and wonderful experience.”
Matthews of Creative Equals says that applied bias training for hiring managers to ensure women are judged solely on their ability to do the job rather than on their gender, parental status or any other protected or non-protected characteristic,” is also essential for agencies right now.
As to the advice she’d offer new mums returning to work soon, Brearley says it’s simple: you can do this because you have done it.
“You’ve done this job before, you have had new starts before. You had a baby, not a lobotomy. But it will be daunting and overwhelming and you'll have to adjust to new demands on your time.
“There will be times when you'll feel like you're going to collapse under the weight of balancing everything, but its really important to remember that you're not alone. You have the right to request flexible working, use it. If you need help, call our helpline and one of our advisers will support you in making a request.
“Connect with any parenting networks in your organisation and if there isn“t one, consider starting one or consider joining a union. Reach out to other online groups for working mums. There is strength and solidarity in numbers.”