Could a baby ruin your career
Expectant mums can expect to face hard decisions over when to return to work, writes Fiona Dillon
Taking too long off on maternity leave can be damaging to a woman's career.
This is the belief of some experts who have been examining whether the longer the maternity leave, the bigger the price women pay in terms of their eventual earning power and career progress.
Recently, feminist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who fought to get women more time off after having a baby, admits that she is less enthusiastic about long leaves, because of the high price attached to them. She pointed out that: "Clearly, it is very good for a baby to have a parent at home at a young age. In the short run it's great."
However, she went on to say: "If you spend two years out of the workforce -- easy if you have two children -- and return to work full time, you lose 18pc of your earning power over a lifetime. If you're out for more than three years, you lose 38pc. There is a rapidly escalating cost to time out."
There are many factors that Irish women take into account when deciding how much maternity leave to take. Under Irish law, women are entitled to 26 weeks maternity leave together with 16 weeks additional unpaid maternity leave. Add on annual leave and public-holiday entitlements, and some women will be out of the workforce for nearly a year.
However, financial considerations remain to the fore in many expectant mums’ decisions about the length of their maternity leave.
Last year, a survey, conducted by employers group IBEC, showed that less than half of new mothers in Ireland receive their full salaries while on maternity leave. Just 43pc of private companies here pay mothers their full wages during maternity leave by topping up the State maternity benefit. And only one in four companies with less than 50 workers pays women anything at all on top of their State entitlement. The current maximum payment for maternity benefit is €262 a week.
By contrast, the public service pays new mums their full salaries.
The acting director of the Small Firms' Association (SFA), Avine McNally, believes that our maternity leave is generous compared to many of our European neighbours.
When asked if it is a burden for small companies with a small staff, having to replace a key worker for an extended period, she says: "While owner managers are very supportive of colleagues taking maternity leave and ensuring they are entitled to their rights, it is natural that there is a period of adjustment as the company facilitates the leave.
“There can be additional burdens for a small firm replacing a key worker during the period of maternity leave. In a small company of four, one staff member on maternity leave reduces the workforce by 25pc, and so this can result in additional workload being placed on colleagues.
"Apart from the cost of maternity benefit to the State, the indirect cost to business of replacing absent workers has to be considered, as well as the increased workload placed on colleagues.
"Ireland along with other countries is competing in a global economy with countries that are often completely unfettered by legislation such as maternity leave or payments.
"While it is very important that social protection standards are maintained, there is a balance to be achieved between social and business needs," she says.
McNally says that Ireland's system for supporting pregnant women and families with young children has evolved over time. "Other EU countries have taken different approaches to the issue of maternity leave and support payments. Some have opted for long periods of time with little pay while others have opted for shorter periods of time with full or substantial payments made to the mother.
Ultimately, the amount of leave that a woman takes will depend on her own personal circumstances.
Janet Gornick, professor at the City University of New York, says: “Most of the research suggests that relatively short leaves are good for women's career trajectory, but relatively long leaves are problematic. The question is, when does it turn from helpful to harmful?”
The industry that expectant mums are working in will often be factored into the decision about how long to take on maternity leave.
Successful businesswoman Karren Brady, who is the vice-chairman of West Ham football club, took just three days maternity leave after the birth of her daughter. Ultimo founder Michelle Mone has told how she went back to work four days after the birth of her third child -- at that time she was a month away from the London launch of the bra that she'd worked on for three and a half years.
Closer to home, Irish women politicians have traditionally returned to work quite quickly, because it is simply the nature of the job. Meanwhile, mum-of-eight RTE broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan has recalled returning to work about four weeks after the birth of her twins back in 1993.
Also, within the media industry, Herald columnist Colette Fitzpatrick, who is enjoying being a new mum to baby Milo has indicated that she intends to take six months' maternity leave before returning to her position as co-anchor on TV3 News and Midweek.