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Baby steps: accommodating lawyer mums at work


Cite as: (2005) 79(11) LIJ, p. 20

Firms that put in place some simple steps to make easier the return to work of women after maternity leave will benefit from a more productive workplace, says Paula Chatfield.

When a woman returns to work following maternity leave, she enters into a period in her employment history where she is, arguably, at her most vulnerable.

Each week articles are printed by the media addressing the nebulous issues of “flexible work practices” and “work/life balance”, but they frequently lack practical suggestions to assist employers to create their own personal policies to achieve these goals, irrespective of what policies the employers’ organisation may or may not have implemented.

Accordingly, I read Natalie Berk’s July LIJ article “To here from maternity”[1] with pleasure, given her article included suggestions of what law firms can do to assist women to have a “well-managed return to work” following maternity leave. Her article addressed the economic reasons and incentives for firms to look after their female employees. I endorse her views.

The principal objects of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (the Act) include:

“Section 3(i) assisting employees to balance their work and family responsibilities effectively through the development of mutually beneficial work practices with employers”.

Think about s3(i) for a moment. It alludes to a reciprocal relationship of giving and receiving. When a woman returns to work after having a child, this is what she wants and needs most.

The realities of a female employee returning to work

It is difficult for many professional and non-professional women alike to return to work after a period of maternity leave.

The reasons for their return vary but can include economic necessity, lack of fulfilment at home, a desire to be involved in the business world and achieving goals she has set in her career.

A return to work often brings mixed emotions for the woman.

We are all aware of the positives a return to work can bring, but we tend to ignore or downplay the negative, such as the emotional and physical difficulties. Leaving your baby in someone else’s care for the day for the first time is extremely difficult, no matter how confident you are with the selected childcare.

Most mothers feel guilt and grief when they leave their child to go to work, especially when they are just beginning the routine. The emotional stress of returning to work starts long before the journey to the office begins. The very thought of leaving your child is accompanied by a sense of anguish and heartache, even dread.

By the time she arrives at the office, the mother may have been on the go for at least three hours, and may have been up in the night to care for her child or children. Despite her physical tiredness, she is nonetheless determined to give work her best. She is probably rightly feeling proud that she has arrived on time, looks presentable and is ready for her next challenge. Surely, anyone who does so much work to get to work should be admired and treated with the respect they deserve.

It’s not easy to work and be a mum, but it is achievable. The task of the employer is to make it as easy as possible for the employee, so that both employer and employee benefit, which leads me back to a central principle of the Workplace Relations Act: the reciprocity.

What you can do to make the employee’s return easier

  1. Don’t expect things to be the way they were before she went on maternity leave. They won’t be. Your employee is now a mother, or a mother of more than one child.
    Things have changed for her; you must be ready for change as well.
  2. If you value a particular employee who is on maternity leave, let her know. The flowers in the hospital were appreciated, but that was a while ago. Phone her now and again to see how she is going. You take the time to phone clients as part of your marketing strategy because you consider them important, but how much more important is a good worker that you can depend on who will help you service your clients?
    Doesn’t she deserve a little of your time to know that she is not a victim of “the out of sight, out of mind” mentality? A quick call to ask how she is going is not intrusive and will probably be welcomed by most employees. Call during school hours when her domestic routine is hopefully in the better leg of the day. Diarise the phone call if you need to: one call every few months is a good investment to make her feel you want her back, assuming that you do.
    You should also make sure she is invited to the fun social functions while she is on leave, and if appropriate, why not say bring the baby too? She may not come because it all seems too hard to get there with breastfeeding or childcare issues, but she will be delighted that you remembered to ask her and that she is not forgotten.
  3. But what if the thought of her return as a part-time worker now seems too burdensome? Are you the kind of employer who will try to move her sideward to work for another partner or team leader to comply with the statutory requirements of the Act?
    If you are, ask yourself why, especially if you thought she was a good employee before she went off on maternity leave. Why aren’t you prepared to experiment working with an employee in a different way from the traditional full-time employment model? Are you a part of the problem? How would you feel if you were in her shoes? What would you want? That’s right, you would want a fair go. Be flexible.
  4. Be personally involved with her return to work. Don’t leave it all to human resources (HR). Of course attending to the detail of her return is HR’s job, but make sure that you chat on the phone with the employee to gain an understanding of what you both want when she returns to work.
    Be creative in your thinking at this time. Suggest to her she send you her “Wish List” of what she wants and assure her that you will give it your full consideration and that it will not prejudice her legal entitlements.
    The Wish List will set out the number of hours she wants to work, the days of the week she wants to work, and whether it is from her home or in the office. Once you receive it, sit down and really think about how you could fit your work needs in with her wishes. Don’t forget, the baby will grow up and if you are fair and accommodating to her, she will remember that, because it will be you who will have made it possible for her to keep working through a difficult time in her career.
    It is my guess that this fact alone will breed loyalty and commitment to you and your organisation.
  5. Be prepared to trial a new way. You have her Wish List and your own needs.
    Treat the matter like one of your cases. If you are a litigator, odds are that you compromise in many of your cases, so why not compromise in this context too and get the best outcome that you can? As part of the employee’s return to work, make it clear that you will both trial the negotiated terms for six weeks to two months, and then sit down together to review matters.
    If this is the bargain struck, then make the time for the review; after all, the review is part of the bargain. You may find that after six weeks, the employee has found her stride with the return to work arrangement, the baby has settled into the new routine and the employee is prepared to work to a new arrangement. The negotiation can begin again, or if you are both happy with the arrangements, stick to them.
    The “word of mouth machine” will spread the word around for you in your organisation that you are good employer to work for. This will enhance your reputation with employees and perhaps with your peers as well.
  6. Show a little compassion. Your employee has worked really hard to arrive at work, she is probably suffering from sleep deprivation, is probably still breastfeeding, is possibly upset about leaving her baby behind, but probably will not talk to you about any of this. (If she feels she can’t talk to you about any of this because she fears it will prejudice you against her further, then you should reflect a little on that yourself.)
    When she arrives back to work, give her time to settle in. Don’t expect too much from her at first. She needs time to adjust back to the work routine, which she will now be seeing with fresh eyes. Be gentle with her for the first week.
  7. Understand that she will need to leave the office at a reasonable hour to collect her child from childcare or allow the nanny to go home. My bet is, she will be so diligent that somehow she will find the time to finish the agreement you asked her to draft – but just not sitting at her desk where you can see her do it. Remember, you don’t need to see your staff to be certain they are doing their work. If you imply by your manner and general disposition that long hours must be worked in the office, you will have an anxious employee. Let her leave early or arrive late if she needs too, but broker the deal that she must find the time to do the work. Try it. The employee will be much happier if you do this. Trust your staff until they prove to you that you shouldn’t.
  8. I have often seen solicitors sitting on their own through lunch time, working away (miserably), so that they can leave the office early (i.e. no later than 6pm, which in reality is not early) to pick up their child, feeling that they have given up all rights to have a break at lunch, even though most others around them have disappeared for an hour.
    Keep an eye on them. Is this occurring with your staff? If it is, it’s partly your fault. You have failed to give them an appropriate workload and to tell them that they should take a break, which is better for everyone in the long run. If this pattern is happening, you may lose your employee when they begin to think it’s all too hard. Step in and break the cycle. Sit down and examine the Wish List; make alterations. Work out a better way of handling the situation. Your efforts will pay off in the long run. Stop any short-term thinking and start investing your time in your staff. Remember, competent, reliable staff best serve a busy employer. It’s your job to keep staff happy, not HR’s. HR is there to assist, but the employee works with you.
  9. Have your firm set up a buddy system for first-time mothers. Consult your employees who have already had children and see if they are prepared to be a buddy to the employee who is about to return to work. This should be done discreetly with HR’s knowledge. The reason why you might want to adopt a buddy system is that first-time mother/employees often don’t know how to manage all of their new requirements when they return to work, and need to ask questions of an intimate nature. If the firm provides them with a buddy, it’s good for everyone.
  10. Understand the employee’s breastfeeding needs. No one speaks about it, but it is a very real issue for the mother. Let me be blunt. If you have been feeding your child regularly, by lunchtime your breasts become really sore and you need to express your milk. If you don’t, it leaks – not what you want, unless you want everyone in the boardroom rolling with embarrassment. Give her a place to go to express her milk, not the loo. Preferably a room that can be locked and without windows. There must be somewhere like that, and if there isn’t, find something for them. Don’t leave the employee to solve all her problems. Here is where the buddy system can work for you. The experienced mother/employee probably won’t be embarrassed about these types of issues and she can explain the setup to the returning mother.
  11. Be patient when she phones in and says her child is sick yet again. If she can do the work from home instead, let her. If the “sick-child routine” becomes intrusive, its time to sit down with her and discuss how the problem can be managed. Don’t just throw the problem off to HR at the first opportunity, but of course involve them when need be. Talk to the employee yourself about it. Honest communication usually draws honest responses. Perhaps its time to try and negotiate a different working arrangement with her, ask her what she would like. She probably feels really stressed about matters and it may be a relief for her to have her employer speaking openly and honestly about the problems she is facing with an ill child and disrupted work patterns.


Employers can no longer depend on staff loyalty, as was the case in the baby boomer era. But loyal staff are a cost efficient asset. Remember that many employees with children have to work because they need the income; this is a stress in itself.

If you make their life that little bit easier, they will be grateful and reward you with loyalty and commitment. Working mothers usually work incredibly efficiently and effectively. Look after them and reap your rewards of bringing some greater humanity to your workplace. This is what I believe being “flexible” in the workplace means.

If you are an employer and you can tick off most of the above suggestions when you reflect on how you have treated returning mothers, you should congratulate yourself.

If on the other hand you rated poorly, or worse still, went to great lengths to avoid having the part-time employee working in your team, you need to have a good think about your staff management practices.

The workplace has changed remarkably in the past decade and will continue to do so. So either move with the changes or continue to erode your reputation and the respect of your staff: the choice is yours.

Put gender on uni agenda: lecturer

A leading Victorian law academic has called on universities to do more to educate law students on the reasons why women are under-represented in private practice.
Monash University Law School senior lecturer Dr Jeannie Paterson said that universities should conduct research to ascertain how much their female law students knew about the challenges that lay ahead of them in private practice.
Speaking at a seminar titled “Legal practice, legal education and the myth of motherhood”, Dr Paterson said she expected such research would find students uninformed about the difficulties faced by women in balancing work, life and family.
“Better information would allow young lawyers to better plan their careers,” she said.
“It might enable young lawyers to make better choices about which areas of practice they will pursue or with which law firms they will seek employment.
“Better information might also lead to greater structural change as young lawyers start using the availability of flexible work practices or the proportion of women partners as relevant factors in selecting a firm.”
Apart from providing information on possible challenges, universities should also consider discussing the under-representation of women in the legal profession as part of the curriculum and to have more lawyers in private practice speak directly with students.
Dr Paterson pointed to figures that showed that the majority of graduating law students wanted to work in private practice. However, while 50 per cent of law graduates were women they only made up 12 per cent of partners in private firms.
She said there were many reasons for this discrepancy, including demands on time by firms and finding good childcare at manageable prices.
While these were problems at a firm level, Dr Paterson said universities had a responsibility to inform their students.
It was her experience that students underestimated the causes of the low representation of women in private practice.
“They have little understanding of the potential impact of biology or of the degree of entrenched inflexibility they may find in private practice.
“Moreover, even if young women are aware of the gender issues they might face in private practice some sort of dialogue at university about these issues is only going to increase the resources available to young women for combating these problems.”

PAULA CHATFIELD is a sole practitioner at Chatfield Lawyers & Consultants.

[1] LIJ (2005) 79(07) 94.


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