Maternity leave: the career killer | Forbes Women Africa

Maternity leave: the career killer | Forbes Women Africa

I recently wrote an article for Forbes Women Africa on the shocking effect maternity leave has on a women’s career. In many ways, women are penalised for having children; especially since without paternity leave parenthood becomes a burden that falls on the mother (I use the word ‘burden’ specifically because, once parenthood is left to one person it DOES become a burden). Since they don’t have a website, and the next issue is almost on shelf, I decided to share my piece here.

Please do grab a copy! It’s a great publication with lots to offer. I’ve got another piece appearing in the next issue with an incisive piece on the South African entertainment industry (and yes, I chatted to Bonang!)

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Grab this – on shelves now!

Is becoming a new mom career limiting?

It would seem falling pregnant is the worst thing for your career in corporate South Africa. With unpaid maternity leave as the legal norm, new mothers have more than the baby blues to deal with. 

‘My entire life changed when I got pregnant, and my husband’s hardly changed at all,’ says Lilly Jensen*, 30. Lilly went from being a successful managing editor at a local magazine on a promising career track to a stay-at-home mom.

Her pregnancy, and the subsequent maternity leave, completely derailed her career. With her baby at home, little support structure, unreliable hired help and a husband not legally allowed to take paternity leave, she felt she had little choice. After two months back in the office, she quit. ‘I wouldn’t have felt so helpless if Jack had been allowed to take leave,’ says Lilly, ‘I might have made a different decision if I’d had the support. I felt I had no other option.’

Maternity leave is often treated as a punishment in the workplace, says Manisha Maganbhai-Mooloo, a partner at Adams&Adams. With only women allowed to take any form of maternity leave, and no legal equivalent of paternity leave in South Africa – fathers may take three days of paid family responsibility leave around the birth of the baby, if it’s not used up on other events the leave was designed for – the bulk of the responsibility and burden of parenthood falls on the mother.  ‘Pregnancy is treated as a penalty and almost acts as a halt to promotional prospects,’ says Maganbhai-Mooloo, ‘Projects are halted and a women’s career is sent on a completely different trajectory.’ Anita Bosch, lead researcher at the Women in the Workplace Research Programme at UJ (University of Johannesburg) agrees, saying that pregnancy is treated as an anomaly. Keeping in mind that the workplace was developed with men as the model worker, ‘Maternity leave negatively impacts a women’s career,’ says Bosch, ‘You hear comments around the workplace about a “staffing problem” when employees fall pregnant.’

The legal minimum for South African maternity leave is four months unpaid, and it only applies to women. There’s no paternity leave, no leave for adoption, or surrogacy. ‘It’s left to companies to offer more generous policies to their employees,’ says Maganbhai-Mooloo. And if companies don’t offer paid maternity leave, employees have to turn to the UIF (unemployment insurance fund), a government run organisation, to pay them a monthly stipend. A year later, and Lilly is still waiting for her payout. ‘I don’t know how single moms do it,’ Lillysays.

Maganbhai-Mooloois frustrated by the inherently unfair maternity law in South Africa. Despite good labour laws, even by international standards, South Africa lags behind with legislature on maternity. ‘The law needs to be amended to allow for paid paternity leave and paid maternity leave,’ says Maganbhai-Mooloo, ‘Not to mention surrogacy and adoption leave.’ However, in her opinion, the ideal should be shared parental leave that can be evenly divided between the two parents, to split the onus of parenthood and equally distribute the effect a baby has on both career paths. After a challenging birth, and a severe bout of post-partum depression, Maganbhai-Moolooherself would have preferred her husband taking paternity leave soon after birth, with her maternity leave kicking in only after she’d dealt with the baby blues.

South Africa still has a long way to go. With mothers penalised for pregnancy, and fathers unable to step-up, paternity leave would help to equalise the playing ground. Unpaid maternity leave also places new mothers at a huge disadvantage. As a 2013 report by the Human Rights Watch discovered, unpaid maternity leave can lead to serious consequences for health, finances and career paths.  ‘I felt like a deadweight when I was pregnant,’ says Lilly, ‘And I shouldn’t have to feel like that.’

*not her real name

The best countries for maternity leave:

  • Croatia, paid, 406 days
  • Albania, paid, 365 days
  • Australia, unpaid, 365 days
  • UK, paid, 365 days
  • Norway, paid, 322 days

The worst countries for maternity leave:

  • SA, unpaid, 122 days
  • US, unpaid, 84 days
  • Lesotho and Swaziland, unpaid, 84 days
  • Tunisia, paid, 30 days
  • United Arab Emirates, paid, 45 days

The best countries for paternity leave around the world:

  • Iceland, paid, 91 days
  • Norway, paid, 70 days
  • Spain, paid, 28 days
  • UK, paid, 14 days

The worst countries for paternity leave:

  • SA, paid, 3 days (technically is filed as ‘Family responsibility leave’)
  • Algeria, paid, 3 days
  • Netherlands, paid, 2 days
  • Tunisia, unpaid, 2 days
  • Saud Arabia, paid, 1 day
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