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One of the biggest obstacles to women reaching senior management and executive positions is the lack of an easy “on-ramp”: a clear path for returning to work after they’ve taken time off to care for children. Equally challenging is encouraging fathers to take up more flexible schedules without stigma.

Employers are increasingly touting their family-friendly policies for both mothers and fathers, but company policies alone provide no guarantee that parents will be lured back from parental leave, experts say.

New research by the University of Sydney Business School and Boss of 70 companies in the S&P/ASX 100 found 80 per cent have policies on workplace flexibility. However, University of Sydney associate professor Rae Cooper says “the policy is an enabler, but it’s not a guarantee of an outcome”.

Cooper’s own research into flexible workplaces includes interviews with 100 managers and employees who had negotiated flexible work across three large organisations. It found managers, not policies, were the key to ensuring people gained work flexibility.

“The crucial thing is the relationship between the line manager and the employee and the approach of that line manager to flexible work,” Cooper says.

Flexible Careers a Key 

Sally Collins, one of the most senior executives at National Australia Bank, agrees supportive managers are critical when it comes to attracting parents back to work. She has taken two stints of maternity leave: for the births of her daughter, Georgia, nine and son, Rory, six.

She says NAB was very supportive of her working part-time when she returned to work. “It meant the difference between working and not working. I wouldn’t have been able to work full time,” says Collins, who is also a step-mother to two young adults.

Now in her ninth year of working flexibly, she has moved up to four days from three a week. She uses her time away from the bank to look after her family and blog, and she recently wrote a book called Stepmother Love.

Part-time work is often considered a career killer, but Collins, 44, has been promoted twice in the past two years and is now just two levels below chief executive in her role of general manager, business management.

Nearly 75 per cent of mothers return to work after having a child, but not everyone has such a positive experience as Collins.

Cooper points out, “Organisations don’t make it easy to return to work. Often managers will assume that flexible work won’t work; that it will be too hard for the individual, the team and the manger.”

An Australian Human Rights Commission study released in July found 49 per cent of pregnant women and working mothers experienced discrimination in the corporate world and the public service. More than a third reported experiencing discrimination when returning to work after parental leave (whether that was negative comments, discrimination when they requested flexible work arrangements, or discrimination on pay, conditions and duties).

The same report also found that 27 per cent of the men who took up their rights to paternity leave believed they were discriminated against upon their return to work, even though the vast majority of fathers and partners interviewed took periods of leave of less than four weeks.

But encouraging parents back to work rather than actively discouraging them would provide a massive boost to the Australian economy. The Grattan Institute argues getting more women back to paid work after having children is crucial if Australia is to lift its relatively low female work participation rates. The institute concluded in its 2012 report on Australia’s economic reform priorities that “if Australian women did as much paid work as women in Canada – implying an extra 6 per cent of women in the workforce – Australia’s GDP would be about $25 billion higher”.

Some employers and managers are already putting in considerable effort to make it easier and more rewarding for parents to return to work after they have children, because they see it as good for their own business.

Amanda Mostyn, ASX group executive, human resources, says ASX has introduced parent-friendly initiatives “to stimulate a more productive work environment, reduce absenteeism, improve job satisfaction, lift staff engagement and lower staff turnover”.

The ASX, a public company that operates the Australian Securities Exchange, introduced what Mostyn calls a “disruptive” initiative in August called “All Roles Flex”. Telstra has had a similar initiative for 18 months. And Westpac Bank aims to have 85 per cent of staff able to work flexibly by 2017.

Mostyn says ASX instituted the change, and educated managers about flexible work, because despite having the policies in place, flexibility was not being widely accessed by staff. She aims to ensure everyone can work flexibly and that can include part-time work, working different hours, or working from different locations. The ASX’s return to work rate currently sits at 88 per cent.

National Australia Bank also gets a big tick from workplace experts for its work in on-ramping staff after parental leave. The bank has a slightly lower return to work rate – 80 per cent – but that’s a big step up from eight years ago when it was just 65 per cent. Like the ASX, NAB sees “normalising” flexibility and reducing stigma about working part time, as a crucial part of attracting and retaining parents.

Michaela Healey, the bank’s group executive for people, communications and governance, says NAB has a rule that all roles advertised must be flexible and open to part-time and full-time applicants.

Parental Leave Penalty

Progressive employers in the on-ramping space also have initiatives aimed at ensuring staff do not slip through the cracks when on parental leave. “Coming back to work from extended leave can be really challenging – and no-one wants to feel like they’ve been living on another planet,” says Healey.

She says return-to-work conversations should start before parental leave starts and continue during and after it ends. NAB’s latest enterprise agreement requires all staff returning to work to receive a pay review and a formal career development discussion.

Parents on parental leave at the ASX are included in performance and remuneration reviews, receive all internal job ads and are encouraged to apply. They can access training, company updates and invitations to business and social events.

Cold Hard Cash

Among the large companies examined by the University of Sydney Business School, 20 per cent had return-to-work bonuses. Two years ago IAG introduced its “Welcome Back Bonus”, equivalent to six weeks’ pay. Donna Walker, the chair of IAG’s diversity and inclusion action group, says it has helped encourage women to return to work. IAG’s return-to-work rates after maternity leave rose to 86 per cent in 2014 from 75 per cent in 2012.

“It’s not just about the financials; we recognise that access to flexibility such as compressed working weeks and working from home is just as important,” Walker says.

The University of Sydney Business School-Boss study found that Leighton Holdings, Rio Tinto and Toll Holdings had the most generous paid parental leave at 18 weeks.

By contrast, Crown Melbourne, Crown Perth, Mineral Resources and JB Hi-Fi Group offer none. The average amount of paid maternity leave offered by large employers in the research was 12 weeks.

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Top Tips for Keeping Your Staff 

Employers should do five key things if they want to make the transition from parental leave manageable and rewarding, says University of Sydney Business School associate professor Rae Cooper.

1. Make it easy: Have a serious look at your return-to-work policies. Is there a clear and simple process for mothers to follow when returning after leave to request flexibility if they want it? Do you say “yes’”enough?

2. Quality part-time jobs: Most mothers return to work part-time, at least in the first two years. Construct high-quality, career-track, flexible jobs.

3. Work design and workload: Negotiate workload and job design changes to accommodate reduced-hours working, or you are setting up the parent in this role to fail.

4. Make it easy for people leaders: Your line and mid-managers are critical. They need to be educated, resourced and supported through the process of making flexible work accessible and workable in their teams. Incentivise them.

5. Walk the walk: Sponsor and “tap the shoulder” of women returning from maternity leave, or who have young children, to undertake challenging roles. Showcase their work and promote them. Engage in flexible work yourself; be a role model.

By: Rachel Nickless

Source: Financial Review