Why the CIPR's maternity leave measures must lead to a fundamental shift

Under one arm, you are cradling your baby. In the other, you are clutching your mobile phone briefing the editor of Newsnight on behalf of a client.

Working women can feel sidelined from the moment they reveal they are pregnant
Working women can feel sidelined from the moment they reveal they are pregnant

Sounds far-fetched? Well this was exactly how I found myself, in my pajamas, after returning to run my own PR business following the birth of my son six years ago, and I’m sure there are plenty more with similar stories.

Research from the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) suggests that women begin to fall behind at the age when they are most likely to be starting a family. Another study by Slater & Gordon found six in ten mothers felt sidelined from the moment they revealed they were pregnant.

That is why it is so important that last week the CIPR announced a package of solutions intended to help women in public relations successfully navigate the challenges of maternity leave and return to work.

Over the years, my business partner Katie Perrior and I have seen too many female colleagues quit the industry after having children. As the founders of a successful female-run PR and PA business, we find many peers talk to us about experiencing a drop in self-confidence after the birth of a child or a loss in standing as childless colleagues are promoted over them.

But maternity leave is just the tip of the iceberg. A bigger question for our industry is how it can help mothers to juggle their careers and spend time with their families. Having a baby is one thing, but the real challenge starts when you return from maternity leave.

Those that do manage to maintain a high-flying career only do so with the help of extended families, au pairs, nannies, nurseries and partners. But the bottom line is that you will end up leaving the house while your child is still asleep and returning to find them tucked up in bed again. It doesn’t matter how dedicated you are to your clients, the vast majority of women do not choose have a child to see them sleep five nights a week.

PR professionals work in a particularly fast-moving and high-pressured environment. Many of us find it hard to take a week or two off for a holiday. It is unsurprising that women find it a daunting prospect to be out of the loop for six, nine or twelve months with a small baby.

Clients often need you at the most inconvenient hours of the day and long and anti-social hours are rife. And if anything, the media's 24 hour news agenda in the digital age, has made the industry a tougher place for women with young children.

Very few of us, for example, can guarantee that we can walk out of the door at 5pm to pick up our children from day care or a relieve a relative who has given up their time to help us out.

Modern mobile technology has helped to transform our working lives – meaning that we can work anytime and anywhere. Yet some companies still fail to grasp this opportunity for many women to stay in touch while working flexibly. Women often feel under pressure to conform to a desk culture – where staying late in the office is (wrongly) seen as an important mark of a dedicated professional.

The new CIPR measures are an important step towards retaining good women. In particular, keeping in touch emails are vitally important to help women stay in the loop during maternity leave. Many women will also value the chance to seek advice and talk to other mums though the new CIPR online private community forum.

As a company, we recognise the importance of flexible working. We have proactively hired women who have had children, offering flexible working hours and locations. This week, we have planned our working arrangements so that our team can drop off/pick up as the schools go back. There is simply no value in having people chained to a desk if they cannot be their best while they are there.

Clients benefit from the extra creativity generated by new mothers – there is no doubt that life-changing events can enable practitioners to see problems and opportunities in a new light, bringing fresh eyes with their new status in the world.

I recently bumped into another former colleague who told me she was quitting the industry to embark on a new career which would provide more time with her family.  While I understood her decision, it is sad that the profession is losing so many good people for the same reason.

Significant staff turnover and the loss of highly experienced women can be deeply damaging to a company. As business leaders, we have a responsibility to ensure that valuable professionals are supported, not just through pregnancy, but for the rest of their lives.

The CIPR measures are welcome, but they are just the start. What the PR industry needs is a fundamental shift in attitudes towards all working parents (women AND men) if we are to avoid losing any more talent.

Jo Tanner is co-founder of inHouse Communications. 

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