Two months. Two years. A decade. There is no “right” amount of maternity leave and for many women it’s not even a choice. The United States offers just 12 weeks’ mandated leave, compared to Australia’s 12 months, although first time Australian mothers take an average of 32 weeks, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Scandinavian countries are famously more generous, with 390 days of leave offered at full pay in Sweden and 46 weeks in Norway. Most women who take leave want their jobs back. Others will use the time out as a circuit breaker, to seek flexibility or make a complete career switch, according to experts. A Harvard Business Review study found the number of women “off-ramping” to care for children was 43 per cent, but a very high proportion – 93 per cent – sought to return to their careers at some point. Unfortunately, even if that goal was achieved, women lost an average 18 per cent earning power post-maternity leave, the study found.
It’s simply a continuation of entrenched workplace disadvantage. Pre-children, some women have more self-doubt than their male peers and are less likely to pursue a pay rise or promotion. When maternity leave arrives, the confidence gap often widens. In a 2018 Australian survey, 47 per cent of women said they were bullied or discriminated against for taking leave. A startling 80 per cent said this lack of support and implied discrimination impacted their confidence and mental health, while more than half said these feelings put them off returning to, or remaining in, the workforce. Internationally, the picture doesn’t look better. A UK survey found two-thirds of users felt “less employable” after having a child while a 2018 Harvard Business Review study revealed stay-at-home parents were half as likely to get a call back for a job interview than parents who had been laid off. The study found job recruiters viewed stay-at-home parents who had taken 18 months of leave “less reliable, less deserving of a job and less committed to work”.
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