Just in time for International Women’s Day, the Vodafone Group last week announced their commitment to introduce a global “Mandatory Minimum Maternity Benefits Standard” for all their operating companies. This means that all Vodafone employees, regardless of their location, will have access to a minimum 16 weeks paid leave and for the first 6 months after returning to work, may work 30 hours a week whilst being paid their full time salary.

Vanessa Hicks, General Manager of Human Resources at Vodafone, told us: “Obviously financial support is really important for families when they have a child but a lot of companies can go straight to the financial side and not offer the flexibility as well. So what we’re trying to do is really encompass both…we know that the time that (working parents) are away from their child is so difficult for them and the time that they’re with their child is so precious, so we wanted to provide a way to help them spend more time with the child plus help them financially at the same time.”

In the Australian context, Vodafone’s new policies mean that employees will work a 30-hour week over 4 days, and a previously ‘tiered’ paid leave policy that afforded leave benefits dependant on an employee’s length of service,  will effectively be flattened: every Vodafone employee who has 12 months service will be eligible for the 16 weeks paid ‘primary carer’ leave.

That Vodafone has introduced a global minimum standard for its paid maternity leave is unusual, but not unheard of. What makes this policy unique is the focus on offering a period of financial support for the transition back into the workplace. In Australia at least, it could be the first time a policy like this has been put into practice.

So what was behind this move? Figures showing that, globally, Vodafone was losing 65% of its new parents within the first year after returning to work.  And a study conducted by KPMG found that the costs of retaining more women in the workforce after maternity leave were far less than the costs of re-hiring and retraining new staff to replace them. These findings formed the basis of a business case that convinced the Vodafone Group’s senior leadership to take determined action to better support new parents and as a result, retain more women in their workforce. Already charged with recruiting more women, the leadership was understandably persuaded.

Clare Buttner, from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency says “I think that businesses are starting to do this sort of thing out of necessity because there is a clear benefit to the organisation….they invest so much money in women, to then have them opt out  of the workplace because they’ve had a child just doesn’t make business sense.”

Vodafone Australia already had a decent track record of being proactive in retaining its female workforce. WGEA reporting from 2013/2014 shows that formal arrangements are in place to provide flexible work arrangements and the number of female employees is, at 44% of their workforce, higher than Vodafone’s global average of 37%.

But Hicks acknowledges that work needed to be done to better support parents transitioning back to work after taking primary career leave. Although the rate of new mothers returning to work has been increasing, around one-fifth of those women actually leave within the first 6 months of returning. This new policy, alongside existing flexible work arrangements, should go some way to address that.

Emma Walsh, Director of Parents@Work (who implement support programs into Australian organizations for their working parents), comments: “At Parents@Work we applaud the positive actions organisations like Vodafone are taking to ensure their working parents can successfully return to work and manage their career with family. Corporate Australia need to take this responsibility for long lasting change to occur in Australia and it’s great to see these organisations making positive shifts. Recently we’ve seen NAB and Caltex also highlighted for making strides in their parental leave policies. This, coupled with great flexibility management is the way forward to a changed work culture that improves employee loyalty and retention.”

Parents@Work, 13 March 2015