For many women, becoming a parent is one of the most life-affirming moments imaginable. But for some, it can also sound the death knell for career progression.
The fundamental disconnect between the number of women working in the retail industry and the proportion of women on the board suggests something is going seriously awry.
Despite making up 60% of retail’s workforce, women account for just 20% of executive teams, according to research from consultancy Elixirr.
Why is there such a discrepancy?
“It’s a really complex issue and all kinds of things play a role, such as sexism, discrimination, subtle biases, gender stereotypes, gender differences in ambition and priorities, which are shaped by society and context,” says Dr Thekla Morgenroth, research fellow in social and organisational psychology at the University of Exeter.
Morgenroth, who has carried out research on workers’ attitudes towards maternity, believes parental leave policies “play an important role” in a woman’s career development.
“If the government wants to achieve its aims of increasing the number of women on boards and helping more women move into senior roles then it needs to address a few areas”
Last year’s Gender Pay Gap report carried out by the Women and Equalities Committee, chaired by Maria Miller MP, also made a strong case for a reappraisal of maternity policies.
The report concluded that if the government wants to achieve its aims of increasing the number of women on boards and helping more women move into senior roles then it needs to address a few areas.
Key recommendations include measures to allow parents to “share childcare equally” and help “women back into the workforce” after time out.
The government rejected most of the Committee’s 17 recommendations and maintains “current policies on Shared Parental Leave (SPL), flexible working, and supporting women back into work are adequate”.
Sharing parental leave
In the absence of action from Government, the onus is on employers to introduce benefits and support programmes that help women flourish in their careers.
This is an issue at the core of Retail Week’s Be Inspired campaign, which aims to inspire and promote future female leaders.
Some employers have already taken up the challenge. Etsy has introduced a global policy that offers 26 weeks of full-pay time off to new parents, regardless of their gender.
“If only maternity leave, but not paternity leave, is available, that reinforces the idea that it’s the mother’s job to take care of the children”
Dr Thekla Morgenroth, University of Exeter
The policy was introduced in April 2016 and this January Etsy said that since its introduction 35% of the 48 employees who had taken up the new parental leave policy has been promoted.
Of those promoted, 41% advanced to director level or above.
Etsy’s policy mirrors the parental leave policies offered by the Scandinavian governments and is far more generous than the UK’s statutory SPL policy.
Only 5% of new fathers have taken up SPL since it was introduced in April 2015, according to research released in December by CIPD.
This is blamed on its poor structure, which means those who take it up are at a financial disadvantage compared with those who opt for maternity leave only.
In comparison, 85% of Swedish men take time off for paternity leave because of the more generous levels of remuneration provided by the Swedish government.
“Other companies credited for their market-leading parental leave policies include tech giants such as Microsoft, Netflix and Facebook”
“If only maternity leave, but not paternity leave, is available, that reinforces the idea that it’s the mother’s job to take care of the children,” says Morgenroth.
“I think the Scandinavian model of splitting leave between the mother and the father is absolutely the way to go. It means women can focus on their careers just as much as men can and don’t have to be the main caretaker of the children.
“If everyone takes parental leave, there is no stigma attached to it. It frees both men and women to structure their lives, their careers, and their families in the way that is right for them.”
Etsy’s new policy adds weight to this argument because half of the 48 employees that have taken up the parental leave policy have been men.
Arguably such a generous policy is more achievable for a recently floated tech company such as Etsy. Other companies credited for their market-leading parental leave policies include tech giants such as Microsoft, Netflix and Facebook.
Boosting maternity pay
Nevertheless, more traditional retailers can still go above and beyond the statutory requirements and reap the benefits.
In 2012 the Co-op introduced a maternity package that offers staff the first 12 weeks at full pay, compared to the statutory requirement of the first six weeks at 90% of earnings.
The Co-op says that unlike some competitors it does not differentiate maternity pay by grade and offer higher rates to those in senior positions.
“We think it’s important to give the same support to colleagues at all levels of our business,” says a Co-op spokesman.
Since the introduction of the increased maternity pay, The Co-op reports there has been a fall in the number of women citing maternity as a reason for leaving the business.
Fellow grocer Tesco recently revealed it was enhancing its maternity package from October this year, and will offer colleagues an additional 14 weeks at half pay.
Tesco UK & Ireland people director Natasha Adams says the improved package is “an important part of attracting new colleagues to the business and helping to retain existing talent”.
One such employee who will benefit is Northampton Tesco Express store manager Aley Manning, who is expecting her second baby and believes the policy will make a “real difference”.
“My husband’s the main carer for our daughter who’s almost five, he works part time and I work full time,” says Manning.
“We juggle childcare responsibilities between us to avoid expensive childcare. Tesco is really flexible with me, but it’s a two-way street as I’m flexible in return.”
Returning to work
The issue of “affordable childcare” is essential to the career success of working mothers, according to Hallett Retail founder and managing director Wendy Hallett.
“The key is to ensure they have a clear, supported route to return to work,” adds Hallett. “Making it compulsory for an employer to provide Keeping in Touch (KIT) days and a staggered return to work if requested will help.”
Ikea employees, whether they are on maternity leave, shared parental leave or adoption leave, are all entitled to KIT days and those that take part receive full pay for attending work on these days.
Meanwhile, workers with more than one year’s continuous service are also offered the option of returning to work on 50% of their contractual hours for 12 weeks after their parental leave, and are paid for all of their contractual hours.
“At Ikea, we believe in gender equality and celebrate our diversity. Having the option of a phased return to work makes balancing work and home life more manageable, and supports people both in their professional roles and as parents,” says Ikea UK & Ireland country HR manager Pernille Haglid.
“The ‘keep in touch’ days are a great way to stay in the loop with your team and also makes coming back to work much easier.”
The Co-op, another company that prides itself on its values, is about to trial a peer-to-peer support network called Parent2Parent, after its Aspire women’s network requested more support during the maternity leave process.
The trial will buddy up colleagues who are going through parental leave with those who have already experienced it and, if successful, the Co-op will seek to scale it up in January.
The BRC’s policy adviser for employment and skills Fionnuala Horrocks-Burns believes the “biggest barrier” to women reaching the top is around flexibility on returning to work.
Flexibility is needed throughout the whole maternity process and beyond, and in an age where working patterns are increasingly changing retailers must adapt their thinking.
“I believe we are moving in the right direction but still have a way to go,” concludes Hallett.
Those that make it clear they recognise the importance of family will be reborn as a company with a true gender balance – from the shopfloor to the executive board.